In her 1990 novel My Son’s Story, the author Nadine Gordimer deals with the pressing issue of apartheid in South Africa (a systematic oppression in terms of racial segregation maintaining white rule and restricting rights of blacks and other ethnic minorities) that was tearing the country apart. This issue is dealt with during a time of political struggle, with various zealous movements cropping up to take the nation by storm, through the different relationships in the novel, particularly explored through the central protagonist of the novel, Sonny. His dynamics with his wife Aila, children Will and Baby, and mistress Hannah explore the realm of the personal and the political, with the two spheres often spilling over into each other. Sonny’s personal life, with his family and with Hannah, as well as his political life, which involves Hannah, and the individual political lives of his family, all rife with tensions and runnings-on, are explored in depth in the novel.
The relationship between Sunny and Hannah explores both the political and the personal fields, as the other characters interact with them, and establish their own place in either space. This paper explores how Gordimer inverts assumptions of race and gender through the domains of the private and the public—the domestic and the political—with Hannah’s superiority as a white and Sonny’s and Will’s as men both being relegated in favour of Baby’s and Aila’s roles becoming politicised over the course of the text. This shows on one level that the domestic is also political, and on the other that doubly oppressed minorities are also able to empower themselves, seen in their actively taking up arms.
Sonny and Hannah develop a relationship originally in the political sphere; they meet as activists when Sonny has already been taken up by the whirlwind of political activity and awareness (after being fired from his profession as a schoolteacher, upon his leading the children under his care to a demonstration near the school, to the outrage of their parents). As they form a professional association, they grow closer and their relationship progresses until the line between the personal and the professional blur, and they develop an illicit affair. This adds to the tension rife in the novel, with Sonny being a married man and Hannah becoming ‘the other woman.’ She appears to understand Sonny’s needs and concerns as Aila cannot do, by virtue of her interaction with the other, political aspect of his life, and is at first his connection with the active outside world when he is in prison. Instead of news of the children’s doings, Hannah can bring Sonny coded intel on the movement’s activities. She can offer him real support, discuss his problems, empathise with him, and understand his fears. Unlike Aila, Hannah is his comrade and the relationship is essential to Sonny. He needs Hannah to give him strength and believes that his bond with her enables him to function effectively as a revolutionary. However, their relationship is more complex than that, with its element of selfishness.
Sonny, instead of staying by one of his comrades shot in a riot, lets his feelings take over him and rushes to Hannah instead. He thus prioritises her over his work, and finds this hard to come to terms with since she is not merely his lover but also a part of his professional life. The political Sonny thus becomes problematic also when he refers to their “one little room [as] an everywhere,” borrowing from Donne’s concept (from ‘The Good-Morrow’) of the bedroom space as being all encompassing, which is appropriate for love poetry but not a wise comment for a political activist, which Sonny is. The moment he says this, he dissociates himself from the entire political struggle. When he finds that one bedroom space to be of ultimate importance, he disregards the world that he has worked hard to better, for selfish motives and love-smitten thoughts. It is not suitable for a public figure in the way that it is for a lover, and so Sonny’s personal life gets in the way of the normal functioning of his political.
The politics of language are evident in the novel as the historical imposition of Afrikaans by the Dutch colonialists is apparent in the text. As Angelika Tjoutuku writes, “Otijherero [is] my precious language, the language of my heart. Afrikaans [is] my second best language, the one that was imposed on me. English is […] my third best language, the language that opens many doors to [sic] me – my key to greener pastures.” This can be linked to the essay by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind,’ in which he comments on the way that cultural oppression works, how language, important to one’s identity and nationhood as it is, when taken away allows the subjugated colonised to be further oppressed, when forced to adopt the coloniser’s language and way of life. Despite Sonny’s political activism, this cultural hegemony, the concept of a form of exploitation where its victims are not aware of their subjugation put forward by Gramsci, affects him.
A sort of hegemonised education was advocated in India, too, by Macaulay in his polemical tract ‘Minute Upon Indian Education’ (1835) in which he advocated for English texts to be taught in India. He endeavoured to impose the English language on the colonised, citing that Sanskrit and Arabic are inadequate. Sonny similarly has been impacted by this type of learning and idolises the books and culture of Europe, admires paintings by Dutch artist Van Gogh, and looks up to Shakespeare (even naming his son William after him), Kafka and other European writers, even Gramsci, ironically. He seeks “to improve” himself through literacy in order to gain respect, taking up the whites’ means in doing so, and trying to live up to whites’ standards. His (very conscious) politicisation of himself is therefore deeply problematic.
His politics also becomes complicated since he only comes to know Hannah through their political association and so his political duty must come first, which it fails to. Hence, he loses the trust of his party leaders, who feel that they are not able to rely on him, as well as that of his family, who see that his primary duty is not to them. In his involvement with Hannah, therefore, he jeopardises both spheres of his life, the political in his responsibility to the movement, and the personal in his loyalty to his family. Thus he first neglects his family for the movement, and then neglects both for Hannah. Critic Jorshinelle Sonza finds that his falling in love with a white activist “further diminishes the voice of the black” victim of colonisation in the political sphere. His son Will starts to resent him for this, and grows angry, unable to understand the play of both gender and race as a teenager. He feels frustrated, and expresses this in his view of white women as objects, inferior by virtue of being women and desirable because of their skin, saying “I pretend, in dreams, I’m doing things to them, the blondes.”
The reveal at the end of his being a writer, who penned the novel, is significant as this not only makes the novel itself metaphysical, aware of itself as a novel, but also makes him the most self-reflexive character in the novel. This also explains in part the interesting and initially confusing narrative of the novel, wherein the story is told through the eyes of Will in part, with some of it told by Sonny, and some by Hannah. His act of writing also becomes a frustrating experience for him, as he finds that his father’s actions, the trauma the affair caused him, made him a writer, but he “can never publish” this “first novel.” This takes on interesting connotations in light of Gordimer’s Nobel Prize lecture in 1991 in which she says of the writer that, “It is the story that wrote her or him into being. It was, strangely, a double process, creating at the same time both the writer and the very purpose of the writer as a mutation in the agency of human culture.” Thus, while she wrote Will as writing the story, the story has in turn written her, and Will. His role as a writer is deeply political as well, since he is able to comment critically on the various incidents, is able to decide which ones he presents before the reader, what he prioritises and gives preference to, and how he narrates them.He is able to bring in philosophy and politics as he sees fit. This role fulfilled by Will ties into the idea of the writer conceptualised by Chinua Achebe, who writes that an African writer in a new nation must be concerned with the then and now, and comment on ongoing politics of the time.
Achebe says, “It is inconceivable to me that a serious writer could stand aside from this debate, or be indifferent to this argument which calls his full humanity into question. For me, at any rate, there is a clear duty to make a statement.” A writer, according to him, must help people regain their dignity and self respect by showing them what happened to them in human terms, since only when the wrong done is rightly identified can they begin to right it. He returns to the topic of colonisation, its impact, and its legacy and postulates that in order to construct their own image of themselves, and take that out of the hands of the white colonisers (who would only depict them as exotic savages to their own profit), African writers must recreate their image and calls this ‘The Black Writer’s Burden’ in his essay of the same name, subverting existing standards of oppression that the whites have put in place through the idea of the White Man’s burden posited by Rudyard Kipling that is is the duty of the white men to educate and civilise the ‘barbarian’ lands. Thus Will is important in the political space, too, as the very act of writing is political; he and Godimer both fulfil this meta-narrative role of political commentary through writing.
In the personal sphere, Will feels a sense of responsibility toward his mother and sister. With his father absent, he feels a duty to them as the sort of man of the house. However, he keeps his father’s ‘secret’ (of his affair) from Aila and Baby, unaware that they know of it already, in order to protect them. Although his keeping the secret seems to come from a place of consideration, it only drives the family further apart, with secrets driving a wedge between them all. It also becomes a patriarchal camaraderie that he shares with his father, with two men keeping an illicit secret from the women of the house, which forms despite his resentment of Sonny. Further, he and Aila both know of the affair but neither knows that the other does. Thus Aila, in a desperate attempt to protect her children, adopts the role of the selfless mother figure. She and Will are thus both protective of their family, with this protectiveness manifesting in different ways. For Aila, an endeavour to maintain a sense of normalcy after they have been shifted to a new neighbourhood can be observed, and she tries to make Sonny’s occupation seem ordinary as well. She does not (or will not) realise that the movement, unlike his previous profession, regards him as a pawn, who can be sent to danger and to death should such a course seem beneficial to the movement.
She also joins the military wing of the movement herself, a drastic change after having been silent for most of the beginning of the novel, out of a need to protect her family. Her role flips from silent matriarch to strong independent woman, despite being doubly oppressed as a coloured and as a woman. Critic Sonza finds that Gordimer has, in the making of South Africa’s destiny, allowed the privileged position of white women to black women. Hannah, the white woman, is flawed in her activism, while Aila undertakes the revolutionary struggle with intensity, positioning herself as the rightful performer in the historical drama. Gordimer valorises the black woman’s participation by providing it the centrality it deserves. She smuggles guns and hides them in her home, taking matters directly into her own hands, as opposed to her role in the home, which is political nonetheless as the private is also political, with women holding the power to influence the young minds of the nation who will grow to take the revolution forward. The domestic sphere thus cannot be underestimated and so her politics are silently strong even before Aila takes up arms later in the novel as part of the military wing, which Baby also joins.
Baby’s involvement shows that no one goes untouched by the spirit of political fervour gripping the nation. She is swayed by the students’ movement and joins the Umkhonto we Sizwe (or Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress. She joins the political struggle as a coping mechanism, to keep herself occupied away from her troubling home situation. This, as well as what her family sees as acting out (partying and substance use), is her escape from the trauma of seeing her family torn apart by her father’s affair. Will realises that she too knows about the affair when she slits her wrists in an attempt to commit suicide. He blames his father for this, feeling resentful and frustrated, believing that his absence is the reason for Baby’s close encounter with death. All that Sonny says is “Will there be scars,” with ‘scars’ attaining significance not only at the literal level but metaphorically as well (with their family permanently scarred not only from the incident but also his affair). Will finds this to be deeply inadequate and seeks more support or emotion from his father, but is disappointed yet again.
His resentment for Sonny, extended over to Hannah, is not shared by Aila however, who is courteous to Hannah when she visits their home. Hannah too sees rather “as an equal, not an adversary,” as Will tells the reader, while he himself feels hostile and angry, in a sense as not just his father’s mistress, but a white and a female, different from him in two regards and seen as a desirable commodity, who has taken his father away. Gordimer avoids categorising Hannah and Aila homogeneously by recognising their many differences; she subverts Hannah’s influence over Sonny and transfers that power to Aila. Sonny’s reverence is shown slowly veering toward his wife as he becomes disenchanted with his white mistress. “As Aila’s selfless dedication to the revolutionary movement gradually unfolds before him, he simultaneously realises that Hannah’s political career merely glosses over hidden, ambitious intentions,” as Sonza puts it.
Gordimer subverts not only race but also gender assumptions, showing Aila placing bombs in enemy houses, and Baby cutting her wrists, covering the wounds with African artefacts, and joining the military arm of resistance. The desire for liberation among women exceeds that of men in, with Sonny relegated to the minor role of a diplomat in the end, while Will is distanced from centre stage as a mere recorder. The dynamics in the political sphere thus are reversed, with the two activists Sonny and Hannah being relegated to the background in favour of the black women Aila and Baby, while the personal sphere collapses entirely. The two domains thus remain rife with tension throughout the novel, and are unstable, with relationships as well as character roles spilling over from one dynamic and unfixed space to another, constantly.
1. Achebe, Chinua. ‘The Role of the Writer in a New Nation.’ Nigeria magazine. 1964.
2. Achebe, Chinua. ‘The Black Writer’s Burden.’ Nigeria magazine. 1966.
3. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. ‘Minute upon Indian Education.’ 1835.
4. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. 1986.
5. Gramsci, Antonio. The Prison Notebooks. 1971.
6. Sonza, Jorshinelle. “My Turn, Now”: Debunking the Gordimer “Mystique” in “My Son’s Story”
7. Tjoutuku, Angelika. ‘Treating the colonial language fever: A Namibian language biography.’ Language Biographies for Multilingual Learning. 2012.