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Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang

‘When you are a child who grows up in exile as I did, when you are a refugee or a migrant, or someone whose path is not straightforward, you quickly learn that belonging is conjunctive: you will only survive if you master the words ‘if’,‘and’,‘but’,‘either’ and ‘both’.
 

I remember listening to the Cheeky Natives podcast sometime in 2017 and they were interviewing Sisonke Msimang about this book. I made a mental note to read the memoir because of the way she had talked about her work. The mental note remained that until this weekend when I decided to delve into it. So this read is inspired by the Cheeky Natives Podcast and their ever growing reading recommendations. Cheeky Natives is a black literature podcast focused on archiving Black stories (you can find their work here). I didn’t think that I’d be reading another memoir so soon! This memoir is sincere and gripping, a story about exile and home. I was not ready for the waves of emotions that I went through while reading this text. I could not just put it down.


In the beginning of this memoir we meet Sisonke Msimang, the daughter of a South African guerilla and a Swazi accountant who find each other in exile. Sisonke, sister to Mandlesilo and Zengeziwe. We meet a young girl whose family moves from country to country while they fight and keep their hope alive that one day South Africa will be free. As she grew she knew one thing would always remain unchanged; that no matter how far and wide they traveled, they were shaped by the struggle. There is this and more to her. These countries shape her life, in positive and negative ways. I remember those few years ago when I listened to the Cheeky Natives podcast, Sisonke spoke sincerely about being mindful about writing or talking about other people’s stories. The memoir involves the people around her but here is Sisonke’s story, ‘This book is both personal and political – it is about how I was made by the liberation struggle and how I was broken by its protagonists and how, like all of us trying to find our way in South Africa, I am piecing myself back together so that never again will I feel I need a hero.’ Yes, this is a story about Sisonke finding herself through the seasons of her life but it is also about her breaking all those preconceived ideas (society & hers) about belonging, freedom, sexuality, womanhood, race, writing and motherhood. It is about her breaking and moulding anew experiences and definitions that speak to the reality that she sees in herself and in others.



The reader grows with Sisonke in this intimate text and it doesn’t seem forced. We turn lemons into lemonade together, sit on a table and make each other accountable. We celebrate the good times and the highlights of life. What really struck me in this book were the issues of belonging and respectability. What does it mean to belong as a migrant born in exile, as a young girl playing in the dusty streets of Lusaka and Nairobi? What does it mean to belong for a black girl growing up in Canada, a girl finding her voice and footing in America. A woman trying to hold her own in a world ready-built against her, coming back home to the once palpable dream/hope of freedom thinning into elusiveness in reality? The spark of this memoir is also in the honesty that Sisonke gives us in her vulnerability, ‘I would like to pretend that my subsequent trajectory has simply been due to my innate talents and my ability to learn and grow. The truth is far less flattering: I had options that most women and black people don’t. Those networks – that social capital – were a massive asset. There were people in positions of power who liked and trusted me and who continued to do so, in spite of my mistakes. This is as it should be for everyone.’ It is not only about history, but shaping the present with a renewed understanding of the past that colours the now and the future. Questioning the basis of that which we find to be good or bad is a necessity. There is a power that stands tall in constantly questioning and finding your place in this world filled with so many structures and ideas.


This is a brilliant book. Every chapter spoke to me and introduced me to new perspectives on various things. From one country to another ideas and beliefs were challenged and reimagined. I’ll say this, the chapters that stayed with me were ‘Mothers and Daughters,’‘Failure,’ and ‘Why I Write.’ Sisonke Msimang has a new fan here and I look forward to reading more of her work. I had a brief stint with ‘The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela’ about two years ago and I put it aside. After reading this memoir, I am willing to give it another chance.

 

Book Details

Title: Always Another Country

Author: Sisonke Msimang

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 228

Publisher: Jonathan Ball Publishers SA (2017)

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