Finding common ground in foreign land

Fictional authors Ijangolet Ogwang and Sue Nyathi are using literature to break down the psychological and physical separation created by colonially imposed borders. During a discussion on the final day of the Abantu Book Festival, the authors explained to their audience at the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre how they are achieving this through their novels.

Ogwang says she was motivated to write An Image In A Mirror by the dearth of literature of the African diaspora who are migrants within the African continent. Alternately, Nyathi states that her drive to write the narrative was to give a voice to the voiceless illegal immigrants who are often further on the peripheries of South African society than their verified counterparts. While the plots of the two texts trace different aspects of migration, the novels are united by a vision of SA from the perspective of legal and illegal immigrants, respectively.

Nyathi stated that most illegal immigrants are motivated by a desperation for survival. Furthermore, despite being eschewed to the margins of opportunity in South Africa, Nyathi states that that is not often an acceptable position due to the pressure on one to succeed once they have left their country.

“There is a burden for those who leave, if you leave you have to be a huge success you cannot just leave to be mediocre,” Nyathi said.

However, despite these motivating factors which push these migrants to work harder than local citizens in order to prove themselves, they are often exploited, at the mercy of others because they are existing in a space which is not regulated at all.

According to Nyathi, the result of this is that “sometimes you play into patriarchy because it is a question of survival, so you use your body because it may be the only currency you have at the time”.

Nyathi went on to describe how since the dawn of migrant labour, it is only a small fraction of immigrants who arrive in South Africa on legal permits which insulates them from a lot of the struggles faced by migrants using illegal routes.

Despite this cushioning, however, Nyathi noted migrants will often hide their true nationality.

“Identity is important, it’s a life and death matter; it can determine whether you get a job or not. A lot of people hide that they are Zimbabwean, the live in a closet because those xenophobic sentiments are always there,” she said.

Ogwang noted how both the people who leave their country of origin and their family members who stay are faced with an internal conflict which involves feelings of guilt, resentment and anxiety. She says that the two groups often deal with the internal conflicts very differently thus resulting in a further separation.

She made an example of how the successes of migrants are often tainted by a loss of dignity for the people who they have left behind and now support financially. “As the middle class we often assume what people who aren’t as privileged want,” she said.

In addition to this, nostalgia often plays a significant role in shaping the chasm that forms between the two groups. Ogwang says “you often remember the place as better than what it used to be or what it currently is. So, when going back home you are on a nostalgia rush and that blinds you to your responsibility in trying to improve that space”.

Although she believes that such psychological separations are harmful in that they stymie cross cultural exchanges and result in an impoverished sense of belonging she does see a silver lining. She believes that it is the capacity to be simultaneously married to and rejected by the two different spaces that allows one to draw from both experiences and “experience a middle line to see the things that unite us are more than the things that divide us”.

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