Let’s talk about adultery.
At a theatre workshop after introducing ourselves, we were asked to complete he sentence “I am…” Someone said, “I am gay”, another “I am black”, still another I am “Christian”. And me? The best I could come up with was “I am Petro” (ny first name). Yes I am heterosexual, female, white, Afrikaans, 32, a mother and visually disabled. Yet, none of these things overpower the others to the extent that I could pick it as a primary identity classification. The question annoyed me so that even now, years later I still feel my heart rate going up as I write about it. Why this emotional reaction? How then do I know myself and describe or live that self? Why does my blood want to boil at a simple question of identity?
Be warned that what I say here is not new, or academically sound or even completely logical. It is a rambling about my thoughts on the issue of identity. I will start at one end and see where that leads me. I am Afrikaans. Other members of ‘die volk’ will say: “I am an Afrikaner”, but personally I think that term is so politically loaded that I prefer simply saying I am Afrikaans. Yet, for me, being Afrikaans is much more that speaking a particular language. But, the ‘much more’ can not be defined in terms of something in itself, rather, it becomes meaningful as I live my life among non-Afrikaans speakers. Among the liberal English academics where I work, I have learnt that I am more to the point than they are in meetings and discussions, yet, I am more blunt and unsophisticated in the way I relate to people on a personal level. Yet, compared to my Afrikaans husband, I am very “English” in the way I try to be diplomatic and beat about the bush. Truth be told, my darling man has been described as a real “Dutchman”. The English folk who said this were ashamed of the derogatory nature of the term, yet I thought they were right. He can be down right pigheaded and untactful in a way only an Afrikaans man (and maybe a Dutchman?) can..
Becoming the mother of a little boy also brought back a deep sense of what it means to be Afrikaans. There is a reason why one’s first language is called your “mother tongue”. I want my son to learn both English and Afrikaans, yet there is no way I could relate to him in any other language than my first. I am often asked if I speak to him in English as well, and my answer is always the same.: “only when there are English speaking people around.” I think it is bad manners to speak in a language people do not understand in their presence. But I feel insincere and false if I try to speak to him in English. This is true even in situations where English people are around and so I often find myself breaking my own rule of speaking to him in English then. What is it about this mother tongue thing?
Embedded in a language, I am sure, is the history of all who contributed to the formation of that language. With the history come a value system and a certain perspective on the universe that cannot be transferred in another way as through the language. Yet, after talking so much about the beauty and the deep connection I have to my mother tongue and how it goes beyond language in more ways than one, there is a major glitch. When I am with other Afrikaans speaking people, I discover how different I am from them. When I am with my in-laws other parts of my identity become highlighted, such as my political persuasion. I will never be comfortable in the company of people who talk about the old South Africa as though it was heaven on earth. I will never again be comfortable in a Dutch reform church and as for “rys, vleis en aartapples” (rice, meat and potatoes) which is supposed to be a truly Afrikaans way of eating… I prefer a mix of all and everything that I find to be interesting, healthy or affordable at the time.
Since I have had my son, though, I have never felt more at home with them. We agree on what manners he should learn, what stories he should be read and told and what songs we would like him to know. We disagree on one issue and that is: they find it very disturbing that we are on first name basis with him and that he does not know us as “mamma” and “pappa”. Of course, there are many of our English speaking friends that don’t get it either. We feel the same as with the question of identity. Neither myself, nor my husband want our son to know us only in the role of parent. We want him to know us as whole people. No other term like our names can communicate the unique combination of identities that run through each of us.
We are all located on an intersection between many possible identities. These are in flux and they shift in importance from time to time, Sometimes you are with people who have a similar combination of identities to you, and you feel like you belong. Other times, often with the same group of people, you may find that one or more of the other identities feel left out. We are always at home and lost at the same time. Depending on what the conversation is about, or where you are in space or time and who you are with you may find your home, but it may only last for a moment or a while before you are at odds again.
In order to avoid the flux and the feeling of ‘being at odds’ we are often tempted into committing to just one of the identities. This means, instead of loving the one and only me, the unique combination of selves that is Petro, or James or Siphiwe, we look for love in a purer ideal demarcated by as few words as possible like ‘gay man’ or ‘jewish girl’. In my view, that amounts to adultery: loving some other ideal person that is not full of faults and history and memory and shade. So here is the reason for my anger at the question of identity: there is nothing that brings the blood of a good Calvinist, white Afrikaner to the boil like adultery..