Acclaimed activist and author Sisonke Msimang released her first book, ‘Always Another Country’. From Kenya and Ethiopia, through to Canada and the USA, Msimang reflects on what it means to be born in exile in the midst of the South African liberation movement. Her memoir contains beautiful details of childhood punctuated with pain, lessons and revolutionary heroes.
The Book Lounge in Cape Town is flooded with afternoon sunlight and people chat over a glass of wine as they await Sisonke Msimang. Applause rings out as she walks in, all red lips and short hair, for the Cape Town leg of her book tour. ‘Always Another Country’ is her first book and is a deeply personal account of her childhood, growing up in exile and trying desperately to fit in while simultaneously furiously fighting systematic oppression and exclusion.
“I’m like the most excited person who’s ever written a book,” says Msimang laughing freely. With poise, humour and intense honesty she moves through her memoir, which captures accounts of what shaped her as an internationally acclaimed feminist and thinker.
She spent a chunk of her childhood in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, later moving to Kenya, growing up in communities of exile and vividly recalls the characters that surrounded her in various neighbourhoods and moved through her parents’ house.
“The exile community was idyllic even though there were things happening under the surface which were not great,” she says, describing the exiled ANC community as a ‘protected space’. Even though her father travelled often, her mother was a ‘hawk’ who kept a close and protective eye on her children. However, she insists that violence against women is allowed to flourish because even in the most protected spaces “it is possible to be violated” and silenced.
Msimang was violated at the age of seven. “I had to think a lot about including issues of sexual violence in the book,” she says. She warns that we assume it’s ‘negligent mothers’ who allow violence against children but insists that it happens even in the safest of spaces. The first time she has talked about the painful memories of sexual abuse is through her book and she had to have difficult conversations about it with her family members before her book was published. She wanted them to hear it from her first.
“I used to feel triggered but then I began to understand [my] story as one of resilience,” she says.
Msimang talks about how important children were to the ANC, especilly those who grew up in exile. “We were symbolic, anything was possible in post-independence Africa,” she says, but also recalls alcoholism and desperation. “People were lonely, families were not together and so I grew up with this sense of broken geniuses… We could do anything but we could also fall apart at any given moment,” she says with sadness.
Moving to Canada was especially tough for her parents. “It does get crude when they call you a monkey,” she says. The racism did not end there. Moving to the United States shaped her political awareness as a black woman . “Because America refuses to accept black people as citizens, [slaves] were never supposed to stay there as human beings, and so your experience is fundamentally shaped by that history,” she says.
When she returns to South Africa she’s a young woman. “Theres a notion in South Africa that we lived through apartheid and apartheid made us special, it made us a nation. A lot of Africans from the rest of the continent believed in us, they wanted the best for us,” she says.
She is hesitant to speak about the ANC of today. “It’s imporatnt to de-emphasise the ANC, to deflate the ANC. I dont write about Jacob Zuma, I don’t talk about the ANC. I am interested in civic engagement, building trust between communities, across communities of class and race, I think we need to have that level of vulnerable exchange between people,” she says. She emphasises the importance of engaging on the issue of class.
“There are some things we should be straightfoward about as South Africans…One of the things I wanted to do with this book is look at how we are deeply implicated in privilege. I can’t call out white privilege if I can’t navigate my own [class privilege]. The way South Africa is going to save itself is trust between communities,” she says.
In person and between the pages Msimang’s memoir is a must read for those who wish to understand the intricacies and complexities of growing up in exile, issues of xenophobia on the continent and moving around with the ‘baggage of being South African’.
Buy the book here.
Sisonke Msimang currently lives in Perth, Australia, where she is Programme Director for the Centre for Stories. She is regularly in South Africa where she continues to speak and comment on current affairs. Sisonke has degrees from Macalester College, Minnesota and the University of Cape Town, is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow, and was a Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She regularly contributes to The Guardian, The Daily Maverick and The New York Times and has given a very popular TED Talk which touches on events which appear in ‘Always Another Country’.