“How can a woman own a mountain? How can a woman not own the house she has lived in for over thirty years?”
I read Damon Galgut’s novel The Promise (2021) concurrently with Koleka Putuma’s poetry collection Collective Amnesia (2017). It was not a conscious decision to read the two South African writers alongside each other, but as I read I noticed a disquieting dialogue emerge between the two texts. Both are attentive to how South Africans are bound by the debt of historical violence, and how fraught, uneven, un-honored this bond is. Putuma and Galgut explore the persistent negation of Black subjectivity and how this negation continues to haunt South African public life. The unsettled question of land becomes the language through which the two texts reckon with the limits of democracy in the absence of justice. What happens when laws change but hearts don’t?
The Promise and Collective Amnesia dramatize the absurdities of private property and the incommensurability between the language of belonging and the language of ownership. At the end of Galgut’s novel, the white protagonist Amor Swart finally makes good on her mother’s promise to give Salome, the family’s Black maid of forty years, her house. Yet Salome’s son rebukes her gesture. “This house,” he tells her, “but also the house where you live, and the land it’s standing on. Ours!”1 He does not have to ask because, “everything you have, white lady, is already mine.”2 Conscious of the difference between historical truths and legal validity, he accepts the deed anyway.
Putuma’s poem “Mountain,” stages a similar tension when the speaker is denied entry to a mountain because it can only be accessed through a white woman’s land. She writes: “When the old white lady in her pyjamas turns my back with her / Afrikaans / And says, You are on private property… / I question why I understand what she has said.”3 When Amor gives Salome her house, we question why we understand, even commend her gesture. How can a woman own a mountain? How can a woman not own the house she has lived in for over thirty years?
In The Promise, Galgut uses the character of Salome to show how the denial of Black people’s right to South African land reflects, and is made possible by, the negation of Black subjectivity. She is still referred to as “girl” at seventy, mistreated by the white children she had raised, and eventually fired by the land’s last heir. The broken promise to Salome stands for the ways her presence is eliminated first legally, then socially. The figure of land becomes the vehicle to explore the arrested transition from apartheid to democracy, which Putuma investigates when she writes, “South Africa has an old intimacy/ with ‘Slegs Blankes’.”4
This tenacious negation of Black presence and subjectivity in post-apartheid era continues to haunt South African public life. In Galgut’s novel this tension is marked by the absence of Salome’s voice from the page, as if only those whose presence on the land is legally ratified and socially sanctioned are allowed to speak. Salome’s silence haunts the novel, growing louder by the page, drowning out all other voices, threatening to unravel the very core of the narrative. In the end, the steady decline of the Swarts reads as a self-inflicted curse wrought by this disavowed bond. As Putuma writes in her poem “Afterlives”: “what did you expect,/ living in a haunted house/ and calling yourself free or pardoned?”5
Interestingly, Galgut’s conversation with Chris Holmes and Andrew van der Vlies barely reflects on Salome’s shaping force in The Promise. Galgut says that he wanted Salome to occupy “a zone of silence that sits at the heart of the novel.” But by the time the critics arrive at said heart, the conversation is already over. So, as the hour went on and the discussion grew deeper, I could almost hear Putuma lament, “[Salome,] your silence is too loud for this noisy place.”6
1 Damon Galgut, The Promise (New York: Europa Editions, 2021), p. 263
2 Ibid, p. 263.
3 Koleka Putuma, Collective Amnesia (Cape Town: Uhlanga, 2017), p. 104.
4 Ibid, p. 109.
5 Ibid., p. 114.
6 Ibid., p. 65.
Photo by Clay LeConey on Unsplash
Farah Bakaari is a doctoral student in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University. Her research focuses on African literature, postcolonial theory, and trauma studies. She holds a BA in English and Political Science from Grinnell College.