Wandering Words, Wandering People




by Patricia Schonstein Pinnock

David Philip, 2000, 176 pp.


After four long years of waiting, the much-anticipated FIFA Soccer World Cup finally came to South Africa. It was a privilege to host the world’s biggest sporting event. Of course, South Africans will claim that we knew we could do it, even with the doomsayers predicting (up to the last minute) that it would be a flop. But on the opening day, June 11, the world came, saw, and stayed for the party of the year, amazed that South Africa had pulled off such a feat.


Yet, amidst the celebrations, the excitement, and football fever, rumors spread that xenophobic attacks would flare up as soon as the World Cup ended. The warm, welcoming spirit that shared in the joy and sadness of 32 national dreams with hundreds of thousands of foreigners would apparently turn hostile as soon the World Cup ended. Against this recent tension, Patricia Schonstein Pinnock’s Skyline offers a comfortingly positive and humanistic alternative to interacting with foreigners in contemporary South Africa. With its young adult protagonist and its simplistic, accessible style, one might be justified in classifying this as young adult literature. In poetic simplicity, however, Skyline deftly portrays some big ideas about belonging and ethical engagement with the other.


Named after the block of apartments in which the protagonist and her sister, Mossie, live with their mother, Skyline is about the experiences of a young white girl and her sister. Written in first person, Cape Town and the experiences in the Skyline apartments are related through the unnamed girl’s perspective. Placed at the top of Long Street, in the heart of Cape Town City, Skyline is a run-down block of apartments mostly inhabited by “illegal immigrants and refugees from the rest of Africa.” The narrator, here called the Girl, relates her burgeoning friendships with other residents in the flats, and her growing desire to capture the “wandering words” of these wanderers.


From the opening pages, the experience of the Girl and the foreigners who enter South Africa are linked through a shared feeling of loss. The book begins with her father leaving them; she “realize[s] he’s gone for good because there is an emptiness in the air which was not there before.” Her mother shows neither care nor concern for her children, and spends her days getting drunk. The Girl’s home is marked by a sense of brokenness, loss, and coldness, where she has no adult guidance, and is left to care for her younger, mentally challenged sister.


Life for the immigrants is marked by a similar sense of loss: loss of home, loss of belongings, loss of identity. They leave their native lands behind and head for South Africa, for throughout Africa, South Africa is considered a utopia. They have heard that “This is Mr. Mandela’s country ... so everything must be good.” South Africa presents itself as a space of new beginnings, a place for a fresh start for these immigrants, and so they come.


Awaiting them in South Africa, however, are prejudiced stereotypes and attitudes of the locals. The police equate illegal immigrants with moral degeneracy, for example, telling the Girl’s mom to move out of Skyline as it has become “a bad place full of dealers and illegal immigrants.” Local workers at a nearby petrol station complain about Skyline residents, blaming them for taking away both their jobs and their women: “You see, the whole of Africa is running into the country and to here at the top of Long Street. Do they think Cape Town is the big hotel with the free jobs, or what are they thinking?” One character even expresses the opinion: “[The foreigners] just got to come down from Africa and take over our country. The country’s just gone to shit. It belongs to illegals now, not us […]. South Africa belongs to Africa, not us.”


Despite prevailing attitudes, many of the Skyline locals willingly engage and interact with these foreigners. There is Princess from Rwanda, who plays a mother role for those who come to Skyline without any other place to stay. And there is Mrs. Rowinsky who, as a child helped her father hide Jews from the Nazi regime in Germany; she has no compunctions about engaging with the immigrant community. Additionally, the South Africans that occupy Skyline are citizens who would’ve been ostracized during apartheid: Gracie and Cliff are a blind, mixed-race couple who were only able to establish a relationship when the apartheid regime was in its demise. There are also the Spice Girls, Alice and Bluebell, who are male cross-dressers. The community in Skyline is, therefore, one composed of many minority characters who willingly engage with each other in the creation of a new family.


The Girl and her sister actively engage with these individuals, fostering a micro-society that is marked by acceptance and inclusion in stark contrast to the xenophobic attitudes surrounding them. This open-minded attitude seems to follow naturally from the Girl’s sensitivity to the stories of the foreigners in Skyline. The Girl imagines how they carry with them memories of their home countries: “Their worlds cry through the stairwell like egrets flying home. Their worlds are like the traffic outside weaving into plaited reeds and palm-frond rope. They flow over me with the glitterings of wind chimes trembling in the wind: chips of bronze, chips of copper, slithers of flattened tin, tinkling.” The Girl visualizes the stories and their words inscribed in their bodies and on their clothes. This engagement ultimately leads her to a desire to write the stories of “the newly arrived, the sad and broken people.”


It is striking that the first time this yearning to capture the stories of others is mentioned after the owner of the local 7-Eleven supermarket is murdered. Upon hearing this news, Sylvester, one of the locals, unleashes a tirade against African immigrants and their negative influence on South Africa, clearly linking this act of violence and crime to their movement into the country. The Girl’s sympathetic imagining of the weary, traumatized foreigners coming over with their stories and the harsh reality from which they flee juxtaposes the money-hungry, violent, arrogant African immigrants that Sylvester describes.Thus, the Girl’s developing concern of writing stories for others, comes from her engagement with others, in reaction against negative, stereotyped opinions.


However, despite this wish to “gather up the words which [she] find[s] spewn across the tar of Long Street and at the foot of the wind and […] turn them into poetry,” she struggles to do so: “[she] cannot turn the city’s laments into anything of beauty.” She tries to “re-embroider these splintered words into the finery they once were—old litanies from Ethiopia; chantings from Sudan; fables from Eritrea,” but it appears that she doesn’t have the authority to recreate the worlds that were left behind from the words that are offered by the city. Her poetry sit[s] “inside [her]…, like hot wind wanting to explode.” She dreams one day to “leave Skyline and live with Mossie in a nice house up on the side of the mountain. Then [she’ll] find words in places other than wind and war and traffic. [She] will find beauty and words of a new order.”


The question that lingers in the mind of the reader by the end of the book is: Does she? Will she? Doubt is cast onto her resolve when the book ends with a loss more dramatic and violent than the loss that marks the beginning of Skyline (I won’t spoil it). Furthermore, this thin little book also makes us question what these stories will lose by being mediated by another voice. Skyline seems to highlight this concern by placing at the end of each brief chapter a description of a re-interpretation of a famous painting that focuses on the chapter’s key characters or events. This mediated removal from the original painting (as well as the translation of the images into words) suggests that perhaps art and fiction alone cannot carry the hopes of the Girl. We are left to wonder if the Girl will ever end up embodying the future she projects, when she promises that she will “weave from [her] words histories and songs of love, rhyming sculptures and pictures of every sort! … They are no longer vagrant and wandering words!” And, even if she is able to provide a home for these “vagrant and wandering words,” what future awaits the wandering people?



South Africa, Xenophobia