When the Grass Sings

 

Doris Lessing, now living in England, could not have imagined that a book that she penned at the young age of 25 years, could go on to be the precursor for her being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007. But such are the writings that glean on the reality of life for they tend to have a universal appeal.

It is the realism reflected in “The Grass is Singing” that has made the book such a classic and a must read for every literature student and lover. It is also a must for everyone seeking to have a better understanding of the thinking processes including the prejudices that the pre-Independence societies had and their attitudes towards indigenous peoples.

What makes Lessing’s book illuminating is that she was part of the colonial system that she captures in “The Grass is Singing” and wants us to treat her version as not just noble, but also a Damascene truthful narration.

Lessing invites us to believe her version of white/black relations that existed in the early 1950s because of her being not just part of the system, but also being some kind of a mole within the white establishment.

In other words, Lessing’s liberalism makes it easier for us to relate to her version and sympathise with her after her expulsion from Rhodesia following the publication of the book which at the time was considered subversive.

One of the key issues that are illuminated in the book that could have infuriated the colonial authorities is the constant ridiculing of certain stereotypical beliefs that whites held on to in order to perpetuate their oppressive system. In “The Grass is Singing”, Lessing explores the roots of the settlers’ alienated consciousness in Rhodesia. She explores and exposes Rhodesia’s white settler myths and ingrained notions they had about Africa in general.

At an early age, whites were fed crude myths meant to entrench the belief that they were superior to blacks. In a vain attempt to do away with their inherent shame and guilt, they propagated the myth that the African landscape was very rich but habited by savage Africans and animals. They also believed that Africa was the Heart of Darkness; and given the slightest opportunity, the African man would rape a white woman.

Using the extended flashback technique, Lessing must have infuriated the Rhodesian authorities with her preamble, which is in the form of a sensational hard news story about the murder of a white farmer’s wife.

It is this murder by their black “house boy”, Moses, who indeed had an intimate relationship with her, that must offended the colonial establishment and made Lessing an undesirable person in colonial Rhodesia.

Indeed, the killing of Mary Turner, the wife of farmer Dik Turner, is one question that has vexed some readers of “The Grass is Singing” given the fact that the black servant and his madam seemed to be enjoying a cosy relationship. Closer scrutiny will reveal some parallels with the Biblical Moses who led the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan.

So Moses the black servant symbolises a prophetic warning to the oppressive establishment of what is to happen if they continue down the path of dehumanising an entire race. The news article on the murder is peculiar in its attempts to obfuscate the real motive behind the killing. It simplifies things to fit in the stereotypical defence of settler colonialism and casually dismiss blacks as dishonest thieves who are also daft murderers.

The narrator says, “The newspaper did not say much. People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.”

Any revelation of the real motive behind the murder would have been a serious affront to the colonial establishment as it upset their sense of superiority. How could they come to terms with the fact that a white woman had sexually desired her black servant?

But not everyone in the white establishment is fooled by the article.

Tony Marston (a young farm assistant) questions its credibility as he has witnessed Mary being somewhat cosy with Moses.

Marston sees Moses buttoning Mary Turner’s dress in the bedroom, and thus he is not convinced that this is a simple murder case as the newspaper article would want the country to believe.

The murder of Mary Turner is not even a crime of passion. This is a clearly calculated murder whose genesis can be traced to the time when Moses is still a field servant.  After working for several hours without rest, Moses decides to take a break but exceeds the stipulated time.

This infuriates Mary who is supervising the black servants in place of Dick who has fallen ill. Moses asks for water but instead Mary responds by lashing at him with a sjambok, leaving a painful cut in his forehead. Symbolically, the request for water represents the first, non-violent attempts to end colonialism and how they are met with even more oppression by the settlers.

It must be puzzling to readers that Moses subsequently volunteers to become a house servant and work in such close proximity to Mary. It is only with the murder that we realise that he wanted to get closer to his oppressors so that he could cut them down when they least expected it.

Mary hesitates when Moses volunteers for the house opening, but she nonetheless accepts him because she does not want her husband to know that she once whipped him with a sjambok. She consoles herself by stereotypically thinking that Moses, like any black, is too dumb to plot revenge.

But Moses is not dumb. In fact, he is so calculating and strategic that in no time Mary becomes so reliant on her servant. Once Moses has gained Mary’s confidence, he begins treating her as an equal; asking her questions previously considered taboo in the realm of colonial black-white relations.

May, who is not happy to live the isolated life of a farmer’s wife, starts degenerating mentally. And soon she is haunted by the presence of Moses: he is someone she looks at as both a father figure-lover, as well as a hulking menace.

When she is at her most vulnerable, from a psychological point of view, Moses strikes. Moses embodies important aspects of black-white relations, especially on the farm set-up which was a microcosm of the whole colonial establishment.

Like the biblical Moses, the black servant feels that he has the task of leading his people to salvation by whatever means, including hitting out where it hurts most – killing the womenfolk of the oppressors. Symbolically, women represent reproduction.

The arrival of the settlers disrupted the indigenous social order, and opposing oppression is meant to rectify this. The first manifestation of this unravelling of the status quo is land dispossession, and then the virtual enslavement of the indigenous people. Even before the murder, Moses feels contentment: he feels he has already defeated the white farmer.

In the scene leading up to the murder, the narrator says, “Ignoring Dick, who was asleep through one thickness of wall, but who was unimportant, since he had been defeated long ago, Moses vaulted for the veranda wall … His enemy, whom he had outwitted, was asleep.”

The key words here are defeat, enemy and outwitted. Moses has managed to gain the confidence of his oppressors, he has gotten into their house and slept with one of their women, and now he is going to kill her.

Note that Moses never has any real confrontation with Dick, but that does not make them friends. The fact remains: Dick took African land and made Africans slave for him. Tellingly, Moses does not run away after the murder. This is not stupid on his part. Rather, it is an act of valour, he wants the world to know what he has done and he wants to claim responsibility for that action.

When the police arrive, Moses goes to them and says, “Here I am.” He stares at the oppressors “expressionless, indifferent” and his face “showed a kind of triumph”. In essence, Doris Lessing is saying that oppression can only continue for so long.

At some point, the oppressed will rise, and the consequences will be too ghastly to bear for the oppressor. But this is not to say Lessing’s world view is perfect.

• Lovemore Ranga Mataire is a journalist currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree (English) at the University of Zimbabwe.

 

 

She evidently is advocating for more humane treatment of blacks on the basis that the colonial oppressive is bound to tragically end. Lessing is not fully critical of racism even if she does not conform to the values of settler society.

She is sympathetic to blacks, but seems to be only saying, “Look guys, we can’t go on whipping these people. Let’s find a softer way of oppressing them before they start killing us.”

Lessing, in a 2001 interview with BBC, said: “I never believed in trying to change things. I just wanted to write my first novel because I was known by my friends as a writer, and all I had written was some short stories and it was time I wrote a novel.”

And much of Africa’s story has been told by white liberals such as Lessing.

There are many pitfalls to that and it is time we started writing our own story as black Africans.

• Lovemore Ranga Mataire is a journalist currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree (English) at the University of Zimbabwe.

 

 

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To God be the glory 

 

October 2013
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