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If You Keep Digging by Keletso Mopai

I did not expect this book to be such a short and loaded read, so it definitely caught me by surprise. This year I decided to dedicate March to reading short story collections (except for the book club read). For quite sometime I did not enjoy reading short stories because I thought that they left me hanging and I wanted more from them. Even when I took Literature as a subject in high school, short stories were my least enjoyable portion of study. After reading various anthologies in the past year and this year, I know short stories are whole and they are good in that form. I was short changing myself and it took me some time to change my ways. Now I sit and dedicate a whole month to just discovering more and more of these collections of stories. Look at me now!

My thoughts

There are thirteen stories in this collection which focus on a wide array of topical themes. Mopai takes us into a South African experience painted with dark and light colours. Yet in between there are colours that refuse to conform to darkness or light and create their own hues. She takes us into a world battling with racism, toxic masculinity, self-hate, inequality in various fronts, mental health, domestic violence, independence (or the lack thereof) discrimination, sexual abuse and despair. One of the things that struck me in this book was the issue of language and hair in a post-apartheid South Africa.

In ‘Hair Tales,’ Mopai shows us what the hair on a black girl/woman means other than it just being hair. In a school it is against school hygiene policies, ‘it looks untidy and unkempt’ and there are mostly pleas which really sound like threats to have it relaxed or cut. Even then, the language used by those in authority or those that feel that they are better/have ‘better’ hair to address the hair issue is questionable and humiliating. Rosina’s mother relaxes her hair because the principal sends a letter citing how her Afro is ‘destructive.’ In a work set up, Lisakhanya’s dreadlocks are frowned upon in a job interview despite her academic record speaking for itself. Language is also important. In a school, a black girl battles with the question of taking Afrikaans as her home language despite SeTswana being preferable and the reality that Afrikaans is the currency in their world cannot be denied. Lisakhanya’s job interview does not go well because on top of dreadlocks and being black, her home language is Zulu and not Afrikaans to the interviewer’s dismay (but this is a ‘new’ South Africa where all eleven languages ought to be equal). Clearly not all languages and hair are equal, some are more important than others. This is interesting to me bearing in mind fairly recent stories in South Africa about the policing of hair ( Pretoria High School protests, petitions to stop discrimination against natural hair, viral Twitter video about a school in Gauteng). In addition, language is still policed in schools, one can look at the controversial Stellenbosch University language policy and the recent challenges to the Department of Basic Education’s proposed draft language policy for South African schools. Why is black hair penalized? Why are black languages penalized? The oppression runs deep.

In that same world Mopai shows us the beauty of family, what love could look like and what living with choices should be like. In ‘Skinned’ Mopai tackles the discrimination faced by people living with albinism. She gives us more than a story about discrimination and offers us a chance to relook love and it’s complexities. Life is unpredictable and that’s one thing we have to deal with but the unpredictability that is people is unmatched! Lehumo makes a choice to love Samantha and has power over that. Lehumo sees Samantha and everything that she is. Lehumo, unfortunately does not have power over his family’s acceptance or denial of their love. That’s just how it is. Sometimes I wonder if Samantha’s reaction is fair to Lehumo and what they shared. The story takes an unexpected turn towards the end and I am glad that it turns out that way.

‘Growing Caterpillars’ is a story that will break your heart (although I am still deciding which one between this and ‘Monkeys’ broke my heart the most). This story is more than a love triangle, it is a window into the pain of living a double life because of the shame and hate that comes with being gay. It is a window that shows the pain and betrayal that comes with loving a person you thought you knew but it turns out you did not. It is also a window that shows the pain of loving someone who is not free enough to love you in the best way possible because the relationship is a secret. Thuso has to live a lie, to please his mother by trying to find a good girl to settle down with. In the process he hurts Keke his fiancé and Thabiso his lover, the man he really wants to be with. Ultimately, Thuso also hurts himself. I wonder if Thuso was living a lie or this was the truth just as he experienced it in his life? I felt pain for each of the characters in this story and what they had to endure. There was no winning for Keke, Thuso and Thabiso. Is this how it is supposed to be?

Here are some quotes from the book:

1. ‘I recognized the car first. I was thrown out of it on a gravel road six months ago, in my torn clothes and bloody undies. Discarded like an empty beer bottle after a satisfying burp.’ page 12

2. ‘The only movement was in the leaves, a cold breeze blowing against her stony cheeks. They say I wept and howled for all my ancestors.’ page 26

3. ‘I made it to the queue. My intestines have formed a knot by now. I am number six in the line and my classroom is far from here. That’s why my friends call me Josia Thungwane: I run faster than castor oil on a hot day.’ page 31

4. ‘My classmates laughed at me until their stomachs hurt. I stared at my desk and sucked back the tears. When I got home, Mama relaxed my hair with Dark & Lovely and tied it into a ponytail, because Ms Peters reported my afro as “destructive” to the principal.’ page 61

5. ‘Time comes and goes like a train nobody seems to catch. Life carries on, despite the dead in the ground.’ page 146

The writing is simple and seems effortless but we all know that the amount of work that goes into such storytelling takes great willpower. There are so many themes to unpack in this book and I highly recommend it. Perhaps, if we keep digging we will find out more about ourselves and others. It would also be a great book club read where people can share their experiences and thrash out the marginalization issues raised. The bonus is that the cover is absolutely stunning! If you are looking for a thought provoking and relevant read this one is for you.


Author’s Profile

Keletso Mopai is a South African writer and this anthology of short stories is her debut book. If You Keep Digging is long listed for the The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Award for best fiction single authored volume2021. Keletso Mopai is also a qualified geologist. In 2017 she was long listed for the Writivism Short Story Prize and she was a finalist for the Africa Book Club Competition in 2018.


Book Details

Title: If You Keep Digging

Author: Keletso Mopai

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 184

Publisher: BlackBird Books (2019)

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