by Yvette Christiansë
Other Press, 2006
Prior to the release of Unconfessed, Yvette Christiansë published an anthology of poetry, Castaway (Duke University Press, 1999), which was inspired by a key focus area of her academic research: slave narratives. It was while conducting research in court records that Christiansë, a native of South Africa who currently teaches English at Fordham University in New York, found tantalizing snippets of the life of one particular slave who had been imprisoned for child murder. Inspired by this true tale, Christiansë’s debut novel creates a beautifully moving and emotionally gripping story that explores issues surrounding this horrific act in—surprisingly—a compassionate and humanizing way. In doing so, Unconfessed does more than present ways of thinking through the trials and tribulations of motherhood, death, and family life—it also provides a thought-provoking contemplation on slavery and freedom, agency and society.
Set in 19th century Cape Town, South Africa, Unconfessed is the tale of Sila, an attractive, feisty and headstrong woman who is taken at a young age from Mozbiek (Mozambique) to work as a slave. The novel begins with a third person narration of Sila’s imprisonment in a filthy, dingy jail cell. Her crime: kindermoord, that is, infanticide. What exaggerates this crime in the eyes of the court is her refusal to explain her motivations behind the murder. By the time the novel begins, Sila has already been serving on death row “for three years... on the path to death,” dulling her anxiety about her impending demise to a state of apathetic numbness. The appointment of a new prison superintendent, however, grants her a pardon from her death sentence. Instead, Sila is ordered to carry out an extended term on Robben Island, seven kilometers off the coast. From this point on, Unconfessed takes the form of a series of first-person monologues addressed eventually to Lys, a friend she makes on the island, as well as Johannes, a friend from her past. Most of these discussions, however, are addressed to the spirit of Baro, her murdered son.
After reading monologue after monologue addressed to Baro, one begins to feel that this habit is a sure sign of Sila’s guilt. Yet, in her re-telling of stories and sharing of memories, Sila shows a clear love and affection for him, thereby complicating and confusing matters for the reader; Sila’s apparent love for the murdered child begs the question, why? If she loved him so, why did she kill Baro? Through Sila’s introspective monologues, we are given teasing glimpses into the motivations behind her terrible deed. Christiansë’s portrayal of the slave world Sila inhabits, of the woman/mother/slave/person she embodies, is nothing short of lyrical.
In a slave world characterized by hardship and servitude, Sila’s life is not her own. She is passed on from owner to owner, masters and mistresses alike, as they need money, or when they pass away. Of these owners, it is particularly Oumiesies and her son, Theron, that she dwells on, for it is at Oumiesies’ farm that Sila recalls a particularly strong sense of community with her fellow slaves, many of whom are also from Mozambique. Oumiesies is one of the more benevolent of her owners, and so Sila is spared many of the hardships to come under other owners. Yet despite her relative kindness, Oumiesies’s farm is also the scene of a devastating deception: as the aging Oumiesies crafts her will, she promises Sila and many of her fellow slaves freedom on Oumiesies’ death. Upon her passing, however, through the deception of Theron and Oumiesies’ lawyer, Sila is denied and tricked out of the chance to be a free woman. Sila comes to the realization that to these owners, slaves are nothing more than objects or animals that can be merely passed along with little regard for their humanity: “We were like dogs chasing our tails. Because that was all we were. Dogs and cows, pigs and horses.”
Neither Sila’s life nor her body are her own. Like many of her fellow slaves, males and females alike, she is subject to beatings or whippings from her more violent masters. As a female she is repeatedly a target for rape and sexual harassment. At a young age, older female slaves try to protect her from the attention of fellow male slaves or from her masters, but Sila eventually reaches an age when she can be shielded no more. Even in prison, she is not free of the harassment of men; on the mainland prison, guards use her as a prison prostitute for money, while on Robben Island, Sila realizes that the attitudes of the island warden and guards sum up the two predominant attitudes of the men she has come to know: “The warden, for one, is bad. He does not care about us women. The guards care too much about us.” As a slave, and a female one at that, Sila understands that “being a woman, I was not man enough to be heard. I needed a man who would speak man to man in that language that would save me.” More than that, “They steal me away. It is a thing men do here.”
It is no surprise then that Sila ends up bearing a handful of children. Yet, as she reflects on a fellow slave’s life, she says: “I was lucky, you know, Oumiesies did not push me to have babies. Before she told her husband to get out of her house, he pushed Alima to have many babies. Then he sold them.” Back then, children born to a slave woman were automatically slaves–something that many masters used to their full advantage. When Oumiesies passes away, however, Sila is passed to less benevolent masters, and from the moment she starts having children, she has to constantly be on her guard against their avarice. Even though she manages for a long time, she knows that even if she succeeds in keeping her children with her, the only life she can offer them is a life of servitude, a life of rape and beatings and emotional destruction. As she tells Baro,
When I see you, I see Carolina. Camies [her other two children]. How could they have known what was waiting for them? It was my business as a mother to know what snakes lay ahead on the road. Is that not what a mother does? A mother watches out. A mother teaches her children–do not sit on a cold stone, do not step over a log without looking, do not roll a big stone over without care, keep your head covered in winter, keep your chest covered when the winds blow, rub fat on a bruise, aloe into a burn. I could not see what was waiting for them.
Is it any wonder that one day Sila picks up a knife and slits the throat of her beloved son?
It is at a big December feast celebrating the betrothal of Van der Wat’s daughter to a neighboring farmer’s son, that Baro shames his master (the last and most brutal of all Sila’s owners), by asking to be lifted up with him onto the new horse, as if Baro were his son. Enraged at this offense in front of his esteemed guests, Van der Wat violently flings the boy to one side, breaking his arm. He carries on beating Baro relentlessly. Distraught and broken, Sila does the only thing she can; she gives him the only gift that she is able to as a beaten, enslaved, female, colored slave: escape from such a life through death. After all, “no mother wants to know that her generations are condemned to the life she despises.”
And Sila believes she has achieved this goal. In surprise at her first sighting of his spirit, Sila asks Baro: “Look at you. Baro! What is it like to be as free as you are now, free to come and go? What is it like to belong to a place where there can never be another lie? What can it be like to never have your name stolen?” Yet, as a woman, Baro’s release from a life of servitude also seems to be a sign of resistance against and rejection of a world ruled by men. As she muses aloud on the practice of visiting and courting, she tells Baro:
These are things a father should teach a son. How to go visiting ladies. I know about visits, but what I know comes from those lessons. Those lessons teach a man how to forget his mother or sister. He must forget that a woman is a mother or a sister. How else can he do what he does? I should smack you, my son, for all the forgetting that would make a man of you.
The significance of Baro’s death is this–it is not an act of insanity driven on by psychological or chemical imbalances. No. It is all the more shocking, because it is an altogether rational act conducted by someone in full grasp of her mental faculties. Baro’s death is therefore more symbolic of the situation and circumstances that force Sila to undertake such a deed, rather than an indication of her instability. Furthermore, the novel remains relevant, not because we possess a morbid curiosity about kindermoord, and not because we are interested in historical set-pieces (though these are perfectly acceptable reasons for picking up the book), but because it speaks beyond its socio-historical settings. Through Sila’s ramblings, we become aware that Unconfessed is about more than just a mother’s refusal to explain her act of apparent madness before a jury; Unconfessed becomes a word that describes the expression of her life on the lips of others–she who has never been acknowledged, never been valued as an individual, she who has always remained unconfessed. “Your mother is a little book. That is what makes me so afraid some days,” Sila worryingly confides in Baro. Her addresses to him are at once a confession of the circumstances that drove her to kill him and, at the same time, a confession of her whole life.
Yet, we are not to see Baro’s death as the ultimate example of Sila’s escape from oppression–death and loss are still always, sadly, death and loss. More ominously, his death also carries a suggestion of the silencing of her life story, because Baro is a “box that holds something from [her] father’s people.” Baro comes to represent her lost heritage because his name bears semblance to Sila’s father’s people–the Barroee. This deprivation gestures toward her ultimate loss, the loss of her own identity. Early on, she is stolen from her people, a physical manifestation of her being stripped of her history. “Perhaps the hell they speak of is the loss of oneself and the knowledge of this. I do not even have the language for that loss or that self any more.” Moreover, she does not even end up owning her own name. Although she is initially called Sila van Mozbiek, she eventually becomes known as “Sila van den Kaap and that is the [name] they came to believe since that is the one they believed.” In the end, Sila seems to relent and accept her lot in life: “I, Sila van den Kaap, I dare to say things that confuse me in a language that has been given me and which strangles all other language, even the language in which my own name lived.”
What options are left to those who suffer under years and years of oppression? What options are left to the thousands forced into slavery who realize that their first day as a slave is the day on which “the world changed itself and it leaned so hard that we poured into a place from which all our generations will have to struggle to leave”? There are no clear answers. Unconfessed does well to flesh out the bare bones of one slave’s life, but it does even better as a provocative contemplation of oppression, slavery, identity, history, and freedom. Sila becomes a figure who, through her monologues, creates one last attempt at resistance, a refusal to be written away completely by history in a book that, through its powerful and emotive writing, will not be quickly forgotten. It is not that Unconfessed does what all good literature does–that is, transport the reader into another world completely. It is because Christiansë, in doing just this, manages to emerge us fully and convincingly into someone else’s existence and experiences in a way that forces us to re-examine and reflect on our own lives. This is what great literature, what treasured literature does. It is through her words and her re-telling of her life that Sila’s constant refrain throughout the book gains undeniable resonance, a resonance that stirs us: “I am a free woman and my children are not slaves but the children of a free woman.”