Avoiding the shame

2008-04-19 00:00

What do immigrants take with them when they move? This is the theme which currently absorbs the award-winning author Jonny Steinberg.

“Immigration is big for me at the moment,” says Steinberg when we meet in Cape Town for an interview. “When people move from one place to another, they carry the whole place with them in their imagination. The old place is still in your head, even though you are now in a new place. I am interested in that. I am not only interested in international immigration, but also the migration that takes place inside a country. In Africa and in South Africa, there is so much mobility. I am interested in what people take with them to the new places.”

Steinberg, who is now living and working in New York, is back in South Africa to launch his latest book, Three-Letter Plague, a study of the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa.

We meet after he has delivered a short speech to the Cape Town Press Club about the book, which relates the experience of his journey in the Eastern Cape with 29-year-old Sizwe Magadla. A spaza shop owner, Magadla is one of a few successful individuals from a poor village in rural Transkei who is afraid to take an HIV test.

It’s an unnerving experience interviewing Steinberg, because he comes across as determinedly impenetrable. Although he spoke easily and openly in his address to the press club, in a one-on-one interview, he comes across as distant, reticent and unforthcoming. Ice cold and preoccupied. Maybe even bored. I keep wondering what techniques he employs to draw out the people whom he interviews on such sensitive matters as HIV testing, relationships, sex and poverty. I later read in another interview that he is conscious of and ill at ease with being a “voyeur”, and that he says and writes a great deal about others, but very little about himself.

Having established that he is living in Brooklyn and working on a book about a community of Liberian refugees living in a housing project in the city, I ask him about life in New York.

“I don’t know yet,” he replies. “I have been there for two months and that is a short time. I only moved into my own place a few weeks ago. I am not here [in South Africa] any more, but I am not there yet.”

The idea behind this book — a two-year project commissioned by Random House in the United Kingdom — is the meaning of being an immigrant, he says.

“Liberia is a small and complicated place. There are 16 different languages and the country has endured a brutal civil war.

“In this housing project, Liberians from across the spectrum are living together. You cannot tell their ethnicity. They don’t even ask their neighbours who they are or where they are from, because the past is taboo. They are all trying to make it as Americans. It throws open a whole lot of questions about what it means to be an immigrant.

“One of the questions I am interested in looking at is, in places where the whole population is from somewhere else, what constructs that place?”

Steinberg (38) was raised in Johannesburg and grew up in the northern suburbs. “I was a normal upper middle-class white boy from a secular Jewish family.”

During the nineties he studied at Oxford’s Balliol College as a Rhodes Scholar and graduated with a doctorate in political theory. He returned to South Africa in 1998 and worked for Business Day newspaper.

In 2002, he wrote Midlands, for which he recieved the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. He received this award again two years later for his second book, The Number, about a prison gangster. A selection of Steinberg’s Business Day columns, entitled Notes from a Fractured Country, was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in 2007.

Speaking about Three-Letter Plague, Steinberg said the book came about as a result of two experiences he had. The first was in 2001 when he went to the Eastern Cape and spent days talking to street children about Aids.

A story kept coming up. In the last years of the Ciskei government, Ghanaian doctors went to work in the area. A number of the school teachers, drawn to the doctors’ money, entered into sexual relationships with them. Through greed — sexual and material — the disease of HIV and Aids was passed on to the husbands of the teachers.

Four years later, Judge Edwin Cameron related an anecdote that, in Botswana, where ARVs had become available, only 15 000 people, out of 100 000 people who needed the treatment, came forward.

“Why? Because of shame. We fight with our president to get the drugs, but we sometimes overlook the fact that there will be other complications.”

So he looked for a place which was poor and rural, but which had a good HIV/Aids programme. He found an area in the Eastern Cape, over which 150 000 people were spread in small villages and with a good treatment programme started by Médecins Sans Frontiers and the Eastern Cape government.

His aim was to see how the availability of medicine would change the meaning of the epidemic. He met young Magadla, a successful shopkeeper — set apart by his desire to marry and live with his wife and child — who, despite his awareness of the pandemic and the fact that he observes that “there is good and powerful medicine, which makes him see flesh returning to bones”, still refused to test.

“It’s a conundrum: why would such a self-preserving person not test,” Steinberg wondered.

The book is about stigma and about men’s experience of Aids as an attack on the core of their masculinity.

In one conversation, Steinberg visits a clinic packed with HIV-positive people and says to Magadla, “Isn’t it wonderful to think that if this was two years ago all the people in this room would have died? Now that number is drastically reduced.” Magadla’s response is that to him a room packed with sick black people is an image of humiliation.

In another story, Magadla tells an HIV counsellor he is not ready to be tested because “if I go and be tested, the woman I marry goes back to her parents ... and I would have lived the life of an ox”.

“For him, part of his identity as a human being is to leave a legacy. He was saying the men around him were oxen who were not marrying. He wants to skirt this fate.”

Steinberg believes there is still new material to add to the debate on Aids. “We may speak about Aids a huge amount, but we are often in denial while we talk about it. We have made it into a special world, sealed off from the rest of the world. I try to tell a story that integrates it back into life.”

Something he learnt while writing the book was how deep, powerful and universal the connection between shame and sex is, even among people who are sexually comfortable.

“Another lesson was how much of this country’s substance is still about race. How so many people are still handicapped by a continuing sense of brokenness and oppression.”

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