IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH
By Bianca Marais
Like family. Almost, but not quite the same. In South Africa, where the phrase is often used by white people in reference to the black women who cared for them as children, it can take on a grasping, almost desperately sentimental quality. And with nearly a million black women employed as domestic workers, virtually the entire country is affected — whether through the presence of a motherly caretaker, or the absence of a mother laboring elsewhere. With her second novel, “If You Want to Make God Laugh,” the South African-born Canadian author Bianca Marais shines a spotlight on this fraught institution.
“It’s good to see the rainbow nation is alive and well,” one character says upon returning to her native Johannesburg in the immediate wake of apartheid. “And that we aren’t the only unusual South African family.” These lines, spoken as the multiracial cast attends a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, capture the liberal piety that drags down the book’s attempt at “non-racial” sisterhood.
The “family” in question includes Delilah and Ruth, well-to-do adult white sisters, and their black teenage domestic worker, Zodwa, all of whom struggle with issues of motherhood over the course of the congested, overplotted narrative. The novel begins in late 1993, in the months leading up to South Africa’s first democratic elections. Seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy, Zodwa, a once-promising high school student living outside Johannesburg in the region of Magaliesberg, consults a healer, and relates a dream in which she’s chased by two white owls: “It wasn’t me they wanted. … The baby. They snatched it from me and flew away.”
It’s a portent for what ensues. The first “white owl” we encounter is Delilah, a nun turned aid worker who flees the Rwandan genocide when she learns the son she was forced to give up to the church has been fatally shot. The second is Ruth, once an exotic dancer known as “South Africa’s Wild Child,” who drinks heavily through her third divorce. The estranged sisters form a tired Madonna-whore duo as they reluctantly return to Magaliesberg, where Afrikaner neighbors are eyeing their family farm for lion-hunting operations.
The three lives converge after Zodwa’s ailing mother delivers the newborn to the sisters’ farm upon discovering that her daughter became pregnant after being “correctively raped,” a “punishment” meted out to girls “to cure them of their love of other girls.” Zodwa’s mother dies without disclosing the child’s whereabouts, and it takes a year (during which the recovering racist Ruth comes to fervently defend her adoptive, H.I.V.-positive baby from her right-wing neighbors) for Zodwa to finally land on the sisters’ doorstep. There she finds herself in the unusual position of a domestic worker in her own son’s home.
Marais’s prose is as overwrought as the plot. Delilah feels her love interest “piercing me with his sincerity.” Ruth is “prepared to try to extend an olive branch for one night, if for no other reason than olives go well with martinis, and martinis are always a good idea.” For Zodwa, “hope is a trail of bread crumbs that she will follow.”
Most problematic is Marais’s stylistic choice to narrate her white characters’ chapters in the first person, while narrating their black employee’s in the third. The author’s inability to imagine Zodwa as equally self-realizing as her white “sisters” is even more glaring given the teenager’s portrayal as precocious and politically conscious: On top of her schoolwork she reads Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx, Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, the last of whose photos she stares at “to remind herself that black women are fit for more than labor, that they can have ideas and thoughts and dreams worthy enough to be committed to paper.”
The tensions surrounding authorial voice in depictions of the “non-racial” female household have their most famous antecedent locally in Elsa Joubert’s 1978 Afrikaans novel, “The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena,” and internationally in Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, “The Help.”
Joubert, who wrote Poppie’s narrative in the first person, declares in a preamble that it is “based on the actual life story of a black woman living in South Africa today.” The book was widely acclaimed, but Joubert’s anonymous black collaborator was never acknowledged as a co-author.
Stockett’s novel features three first-person narrators: two African-American domestic workers, Aibileen and Minny, and Skeeter, the white woman journalist who tells their stories. Two years after the novel’s publication, a woman named Ablene Cooper, who had for years worked in Stockett’s brother’s home, accused the author of stealing her story.
Do white female authors of this subgenre find black domestic workers so unknowable that they can’t narrate black voices as self-actualizing “I’s,” without “borrowing” the identities of real-life individuals in such troubling ways?
One might find something of a confession in Joubert’s 1980 short story “Backyard.” The white protagonist reflects on her relationship to her domestic worker Flora: “She is closer to me than a sister, knows my intimate life at a deeper level than a sister could ever know me. But I don’t know her.”
Similarly, despite Zodwa’s intimate involvement in Ruth’s domestic affairs — she saves the baby from choking and later saves Ruth herself from drowning after a drunken rage — Ruth fails to recognize the true maternity of her adopted son until it is spelled out for her toward the end.
At a time when South Africa — young, black South Africa in particular — is actively questioning the very premise of Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation,” it is quite astonishing to read a novel that does not raise any new (or even old) questions of either the transition to post-apartheid democracy or the realities of “non-racial” sisterhood. Perhaps Marais is afraid of the answers to such questions. Ultimately, sentimentality hinders Marais’s ability to really know post-apartheid South Africa, and its women, at all.