“Naii-Talk”: Sex as a Tool of Power in Dangor’s Bitter Fruit
Updated: Jul 28
This essay was submitted on 10 April 2015 as part of coursework for ENGL 478 at the University of British Columbia with Dr. Suzanne James.
In Bitter Fruit, Dangor's characters routinely use sex as a tool of power, be it of a political, inter-personal, or socio-familial nature. Every sexual encounter that takes place in the novel has an innocent and a sinful participant; it’s not that men weaponize sex, per se, but that the characters believe that sex is inherently dangerous and somehow wrong. This vague sense of wrong creates a shame-enforced silence that surrounds the issues. Ultimately, the failure of Silas and Lydia’s generation to overturn this paradigm leads to its continuation in Michael’s generation.
This South African novel tells a powerful story of how the toxins of apartheid still seep into the life of one small"Coloured" family: individuals from that group who, in their physical attributes, their cultural baggage, their surnames (Viljoen, Oliphant), carry the history of the conqueror's more intimate conquests. Thanks to Nadine Gordimer and others, the white dissident experience has been documented. Achmat Dangor's novel not only fills a gap, but does so with the elegiac beauty of a work by John McGahern.
The catalyst in this family tragedy is the reappearance in the life of Silas Ali of Francois du Boise, a loutish white security policeman who, 20 years earlier, raped Ali's wife having thrown Silas into a police van. The rape was an ugly, drunken affair, accompanied by racial insults. Now du Boise has reappeared, pathetic, disfigured by skin cancer, seeking amnesty for multiple rapes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Silas, meanwhile, is a lawyer close to the ANC government and a participant in the Commission. But the story, for all its political context, is stronger for keeping its focus on the evolving family drama, which it does through a series of interior sequences devoted in turn to Silas, to his wife Lydia, and to their meltingly beautiful but troubled and somewhat Oedipal son, Mikey.
* This summary of the novel is taken from the Achmat Dangor's website as is only intended to situate the reader of this paper.
The full essay is available as a PDF by clicking the link below.