‘Where is your pass?’ A mixture of deodorant smells and paper, tobacco, old furniture, turned into a single smell, which characterises all the places whose functions are proclaimed by notices. Where warnings burden walls, counters and filing cabinets, where the sweat, tears, vomit and blood of many many people, who came and went, who never made it out of the doors, leave their spirits hanging in the air, which can never be cleaned. All these seemed to sing, seemed to whisper, seemed to warn us about where we were, and said something about our fate. The fluorescent lights seemed dim, and in rhythm with the voices they seemed determined to penetrate, destroy, and hung over our head so delicately, it was our lives hanging on them. There was going to be a display of power. All the eyes, the movements, the faces, the silence in the room, even the way those lights issued their light, everything was about power. Now I was standing astride, my head bent over the counter, my neck held firmly by a hand which felt as huge as the treacherous heavens. I was struggling to breathe, to see, to say something about my discomfort, and I could hear a loud voice, which I knew so well, tearing the silence, tearing the faint fluorescent lights, tearing through the huge anger that dangled over us. It hid its power and pierced straight into the heart, painfully, slowly, deliberately. I felt hands touch my legs and rise up to my thighs, almost between my buttocks. I tried to lift my head, but my forehead was banged against the wooden counter, so hard it was like the bone in it was melting, giving in to the anger that now filled the room. The huge hand, with vicious flexibility and an unnerving agility, got hold of my balls. I felt the grip tighten, hold, squeeze and pull. I could still hear the shouting, or was it a scream, I could hear feet shuffling, struggling, and bodies banging against the furniture in the police station. Lights went out of me. Thin stars took over. I tried to stand up, to lift my head once more, and again, with a terrible force, it crashed against the counter.
I felt my face become wet, my knees shake, tremble, and now it was my body, trembling, trembling like the sky shaken by thunder. Then, at first, it felt like a relief, right inside my penis, piercing, and I knew I had to hold, hold with all my might. I held on. It was like everything, all the muscles in my body, the shoulders, the stomach, the muscles which close the eyes, even the way my mouth was tight, all seemed to be a power, urging, urging me to release. And now I knew that I was holding with all my strength, I was holding the scream from escaping my lips. I felt my wet hands tighten on the wooden counter, they held so tight they began to hurt. My feet, trembling, wet, seemed to want to assure me that they were still on the ground. Everything now was hurting, was like a huge terror, unleashed, wanting my penis to let go. The scream, stuck somewhere inside my mouth, seemed to have mighty strength all of which fell on the lips, pushing, pushing, wanting them to let go. It was the penis and the mouth. Then the arsehole too joined, the muscles around it seemed to dance, mocking me, daring me, wanting to know if I had any control over them, and the air, that terrible-smelling air, kept escaping in tiny bits. I thought of my grandmother, there was no way that I could call her name, and not lose, fall, lie down in shame, there was no way. I thought of how she would hold my hand, call my name and tell me that I should know that on this earth, I have a journey to make, and the journey has to be made with and among other people, and I was the only one who would know which people I could make the journey with. And what that means, she would say, is that if on my journey, I met people who could not sing, or who did not take with them their guitars, their drums, and their songs, who, when they tried to sing, their voices became hoarse, mine too would be hoarse, we would never make the journey. I thought of her saying to me, ‘Child you must know, in the darkness of your past, where you come from, and in the faint future where you are going, that you were issued by loins which bathed in the fire that made the lightning, that dared the clouds to join and curl into the blood of man, that you were like the plants, so merged with the soil, and water, and wind, and the sun and the moon, that your past is scattered, nothing could hold it, that have a future to build.’ She would say, ‘You choose how you do it, we are going, we are on our way. We tried to show you everything, we loved you, took your hand and walked with you. One day you will have to remember that you are alone, among other people, and that you have a journey to make.’
A voice snatched my grandmother’s face and voice away from me, from the darkness that the pain had put me into. I felt the hand around my neck, wet, shaking in anger, dig its nails into the flesh. I felt as though the bag of my balls was going to be torn off. I felt the air in my arse escaping. I heard its sound, desperate, I tried to hold, I saw the light, and it was then that everything happened: first, something warm ran down my shoes, then my legs had this cold feeling running down them, into my shoes. And then my trousers too were cold, my penis felt as if it was shrinking into oblivion, as the huge hand let go. Tears came to my eyes, and ran down my cheeks, pouring as if forever. The air from the arsehole seemed to sing in laughter, then I felt as if the whole sky had fallen on the back of my neck, something snapped.
‘You fucking farting …’ the voice said, and broke into terrible laughter. That was when I began to weep, and scream, and I fell down, tired, wet all over my body, ashamed. I wept on the floor, feeling shadows hovering over me, footsteps, coming and going away. I lay on the cold floor, tears running away from me, feeling my urine all over me, the smell of my arsehole. I remember saying, ‘Grandmother, grandmother,’ calling and calling and getting no reply.
From To Every Birth Its Blood, by Mongane Serote
Write Sexercise 1: Analyse this masterful representation/evocation of an extreme experience in the body.What does Serote, a poet writing a novel, do with language? Look at everything: punctuation, sentence length, word choice, paragraphing. Feel how Serote controls time on the page: When does time move slowly, when does it flash by? Watch how he moves the narration between interiority and setting: the body becomes a space within a space. List the metaphors, and give a name to this collection of images. List the words for body parts. List the words for emotions. List the objects in the room. List the verbs.
Write Sexercise 2: Write a sex scene using the strategies Serote used to describe torture, including a flashback. It’s not important what kind of sex you write, but how you write it. Don’t write a sex torture scene. Use Serote’s techniques for intense, visceral writing, and use a flashback.
Here are two other scenes from To Every Birth Its Blood which you may find useful:
So, when she and I walked into the house after we had been in the street so long, I knew that another time was coming when we would to be in the street again. That moment, as she went about the house opening the windows, taking off her shoes, unbuttoning her blouse, looking calm and more friendly, I wanted to weep. I did not know how I was going to tell her, ‘Baby, most things about this earth want you to run, want to make you weary, want you to faint.’
So I sat back on the chair. I said, ‘Honey, why don’t you play Nina Simone?’
She was smiling as she came softly towards me and, hugging me, asked whether I wanted tea or whether she must send a kid to the shebeen for beer. I said beer. Beer makes things easy, I thought to myself. ‘Streets full of people all alone,’ Nina was saying.
Yes, when Lily and I were walking, coming home, I was in a good, loving mood. I felt very close to her. I knew she was one person I could say I knew. Lily can enjoy a person like child enjoys a peach. You see the juice flowing down her tender, strong fingers, towards her smooth arms. Her teeth dig in, right into the flesh; you can see her thick, warm lips embrace the peach, tasting its flesh. Something about her laughter, when she really laughs, not when she laughs instead of crying, has made me discover many things, even about myself.
I was looking at her legs. Long legs which give her a tall, steady gait as her thigh muscles thrust and relax. I watched her walk from the wardrobe to the table, where she took out the money form her bag. Then she moved to the door. I heard her call our little friend’s name. My mother has called me that way, so many times, that long dragging way, as if my name were spaghetti threads. Her lips tasting the name, something about the voice becoming tender. They spoke at the door, I heard the little footsteps run and fade. Lily, almost talking to herself, said, ‘While you have your beer I will have my tea.’
I took off my shoes. I took off my socks. I unbuttoned my shirt and sat back. It felt so good, really, so good to know I was not going to faint. I had been running, oh, I was weary, but now I knew I was not going to faint. The noise of the Primus stove started. She put the kettle on, placed a glass and a cup on the table, and came over to sit next to me and enjoy me.
‘Do you feel good about the theatre now?’
‘I do not know, Baby,’ I said.
‘What do you think is going to happen?’
‘The worst,’ I said, ‘is that we could all get arrested. At the least, we could be banned.’ There was silence. I could feel her thinking, and her mind fidgeting with the future.
‘Don’t faint Baby, please child, don’t faint,’ I said.
‘No, I won’t,’ she said. Our eyes met. I waited for her to kiss me. But I could feel her waiting for me to her. I was not about to do that. Her eyes were digging into mine. There was silence. I thought, God, something is going to break. I waited.
When I opened my eyes, the dog was barking viciously. Then I heard voices. It was like my door was falling off its hinges. I felt my heart leap. Lily held me tight.
‘Sleep, sleep,’ she whispered in my ear. ‘Sleep, sleep.’ She held my chest. I heard her heart beating, as if its flesh was right against my shoulder. I heard voices. ‘Tsi, Tsi Molope,’ the voice said and went on about breaking down the door. I wanted to turn on the bed because my one side was tired. I held back because the bed would make a noise. I felt sweat from Lily’s arms. My head was pounding, pounding, pounding. I thought of Boykie. ‘You can’t be drunk and be alert at the same time,’ he had said. Why, why, why? Even before I completed the question I knew how ridiculous it was. Why can’t they leave us alone, in peace? Shit, how could I ask a question like that? Moeskond! I thought of Nomsisi. Suddenly, I felt something wet on my shoulder. I thought God, Lily’s heart is bleeding, the red flesh on my shoulder oozing blood. I was about to turn. She held me tight, not to turn. My hand went to my shoulder, my eyes on the hand. It was only sweat from Lily’s breast. I remember shaking. Trembling. Anger. Fear. Despair. Combined. And then the door rattled. Shook. A loud bang, like thunder, continuous, hit the door. ‘Hey, Tsi Molope, Tsi Molope, I will break this door down!’ I thought fuck, fuck it, break it. I am not going to open it.
‘Tsi is not here, and his wife is not here, we have not seen them for a long time, maybe a week,’ a voice said. I felt weary and feeble. Someone said something in Afrikaans. Then someone said something in Setswana.
I felt Lily lie back and sigh. And then there was deep silence. I turned to feel her breath brush past my neck. My head, God, my head was pounding and it was as if the pain would soon jump out through the eyes, just pop out and fall on the bed. A splitting headache. I felt Lily’s warm hand touch my terrible muscle, which soon shot up as if it were a spring. It suddenly felt packed and about to burst. She held my head and kissed me full on the mouth. Dazed in her grip, lost in her strength, I gave in to her. I was groping with my hands when I felt her withdraw. In no time, she was in the distance. She went out of the bed and I heard the sound of the Primus stove. I lay there in bed, my muscle aching and throbbing. I could feel the heat at its tip.
‘When are you going to pay the permit?’ Lily said at last. She shot her eyes at me, looking at me, and at the same time, beyond me.
‘Why do you run out of bed like that?’
‘You fool!’ She came over. For a minute I did not know where she was going. I was still dazed in her imaginary arms, her perfume still lingered somewhere next to me in bed. Suddenly I felt her nails dig into my arm, and then a slap on the face. That woke me up.
‘What the fuck?’ I said, jumping up.
‘The fuck is you, you fool,’ she said laughing childishly and victoriously. ‘Sometimes you make me feel like I should bash your head,’ she said.
Then she began to cry. …
Everything became so heavy. Silence. Talk. The Primus stove sound. Lily’s footsteps as she moved around the house. Everything, all, was so heavy. There was nothing I could say to her now that would reach her. So I lay in bed and gave my life to her. Everything that I was was there with me in bed. My bad breath, probably smelling like shit, form beer last night or that morning; my pounding, aching head; my fear, because my heart was still jumping; my recollection of the banging on the door; my helplessness, my despair, my anger; my limp muscle, which lay looped as if it were ashamed to have ever erected; I lay there and gave my life to Lily. I lay in silence, while she lashed with tongue, tears and terrible silence. Everyt time she wept, I thought something was going to snap, and snap forever. I lay there, while her voice joined in on the rhythmic pounding ache in my head. My eyes were blurred.
JM Coetzee, writing in the New York Times in 1986, discusses torture as a subject for South African writers.
The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a … reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it ….
“It is precisely because [he] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.” John T. Irwin in Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner
In creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation. … Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.
Our work in Write Sex is:
- not to play the sexual representation game by the rules
- to establish our own authority as artists
- to imagine sex on our own terms.