Nomboniso Gasa, The so-called “Grand Narrative”: phrase that irritates like a buzzing mosquito

The “Grand Narrative” phrase is an interesting concept

with multiple layers of meaning… all rather discomfiting for me. The “Grand Narrative” of the “national liberation struggle”, The “Grand Narrative” of this and that…

It’s a telling phrase; one that caricatures a complex struggle fought and led at different levels by different players, some of whose names remain unknown. Gosh… every time I see this, I break into laughter and then remember Eduardo Galeano’s early writings on how we write and speak of other historical eras, other people’s struggles…. Susan Sontag on “Regarding the Pain of Others” and so many others…. I wonder why it ever was called the “Grand Narrative”? Why “Grand Narrative” is always put in terms that suggest a contradiction with other narratives at different levels.

Again my mind flips to bell hooks on how “we use language to conceal meaning”. So far, the “Grand Narrative” has come to suggest there are smaller narratives that are more “authentic”, “closer to truth”.  So, let’s rush and find these stories of these “little forgotten” people…. I always imagine in my head.  I find it a cynical term that offers absolutely no analytical value to me.

Then my mind flips again… now it is Brecht “A worker reads History”. The first poet I came across in fact, who questioned the “singular narrative” of history.  Brecht went beyond this, in his poetic language, he showed these others players, he honoured those workers who fell building the Great Wall of China, The Pyramids and so on… you know the poem.

So, there are other ways of asking and taking apart the different composites sometimes contradictory and sometimes building on each other. In telling the story of a large liberation movement, it was a liberation movement (certainly according to my grandparents, my mother and her siblings, my comrades & me and so on…) and there is nothing wrong with that imagination.  It does not take away the multiplicity of players, different ideologies and etc…

“Grand Narrative” has come up in the context of ANC narrative of great leaders and the question is where are they today?  This is an important question that needs serious consideration. I could offer some tentative answers… but that is for another time.

However, there is the secondary question, and very important in its own right.  What was the role of other political movements such as PAC? Why do they not feature in the way in which we write or remember our history?  Again, for me, this is not about “Grand Narrative”.  It is about our tendency to veer towards the “singular narrative” and I dare say sometimes narrow vision.  There are many players in any historical process and they have to be acknowledged for playing different roles.

I am very comfortable with multiple narratives, sometimes told at the same time and running counter or contradictory to each other.  That appeals to me.  That is familiar to me.  Life is like that, it is lived at different levels at the same time even by an individual life.

I think there is a cultural dimension that informs my ability to live with this and my preference for it.  My little sister (who is not so little) learnt her first “poem”  at school.

 The Tea Pot  

Mna ndiyi tea poti. 

Lo ngumqheba;

Lo ngumlomo;

esi si siciko…

ndiyithulule, ndiyithulul’ikofu yam.” 

(I am a tea top.  This is the handle, this here is my spout, and this is the lid. I pour, I pour, and I pour my coffee). Sometimes we used the tea pot to also refer to coffee pot… J  Thank you Bantu Education.

(Right! as I was writing this little banal poem)  I actually got up typed standing and acting the poem as that little girl did when she was three…

So, no one speaks about the spout the teapot. No one speaks of its handle. No one speaks of its shape. Yet, try and make tea using different types of tea pot.  You quickly appreciate these apparently irrelevant parts of the tea pot.  You notice how certain shapes make it stronger (I kid you not), how irritating to the touch is a particular handle (beautiful as it might be), the clumsy pour that comes out of that spout… and so on.

Great, I have now revealed my tendencies towards tea.  Well, blame me on history.  I am a product of the Cape Colony, originating from the land of the Frontiers. That is not an apology by the way; it is another way of looking at this construct “the nation”.

Now, I have to go and have a cuppa. I can’t possibly write after this without tea.   I’ll be back be back and tie up this messy little narrative I started, without tea…

Okay, so back to the “Grand Narrative” and the like. Seriously, I think we live our lives on different planes at all times. Sometimes, our world is limited to what is immediately around us, sometimes we are aware of the connections that we have with the larger world and the context.  Sometimes, it focussing on the detail, we miss the larger picture. Sometimes the bigger picture obscures and may even erase other perspectives and experiences.

I am reading an interesting book at the moment. Children of the Days: A calendar of Human History by Eduardo Galeano. For each day, he allocates a historic event, it moves from one century to another, the only consideration Galeano has is the historical event, moment, human being or whatever he considers as important for that day. His choice is eclectic.  The challenge I have set for myself is whether I will be able to read one entry a day. So, far I have maintained discipline.

I am fascinated by his choices.  I cross reference with his other books; Open Veins of Latin America, Memory of Fire, Mirrors and my all time favourite “Days and Nights of Love and War”.   In a way, Galeano’s impressive works illustrate the relationship between the big picture and the detail that may be missed.

I must confess also that from a cultural point of view of storytelling, I was strongly influenced by the tall tales that isiXhosa speakers told. I am strongly influenced by my own father “whose narrative of his courtship” with my mother shifted and changed with the mood.  The core story remained. Sometimes he introduced other details, this was partly for our entertainment but not solely. The details were also added to bring other aspects to their courtship, the reality of dating a young woman whose father had just died after coming out of prison; the implications of meeting a young innocent, wide eyed girl, who nevertheless had to earn a living and support her siblings. Sometimes, to show how incongruent their relationship may have seemed. And yet, how well suited they were.

Some oral historians would have found him both a person to mine stories that seemed unrelated to “big and important historical events”. Depending on their inclination, creativity and imagination, they could easily work out different layers… I certainly did at 10 years old and yet still was amazed with more and more details that emerged from a story that my father told for a lifetime…

Add to this, the tales, poems and stories that were part of village life, including the ways in which our parents told us of our circumstances. 

This tapestry of stories and human experience is another reason, if not the most important reason for my discomfort with the “Grand Narrative” – mostly written in an ever slightly or even blatantly condescending manner. I for one needed that big political dream.  It certainly gave me hope in times of despair. I never thought of it as thwarting the stories and roles of others.  How could I? I had uncles who served time in Robben Island for PAC and they were Poqo qwaba.

As I close this rumbling post, I am reminded of a recent event. With the passing of Chinua Achebe, people lamented “the death of the father of African literature.” (So, how did Achebe catapult to a father of African Literature? my non-conformist mind would not let this go. It is a question that has always troubled me).  Then, Soyinka gave an interview in which he paid tribute to Achebe. He also reflected on some aspects over which he and Achebe dis/agreed.  Then he moved to those who called Achebe The Father of African Literature – how do they arrive at this conclusion?  What do they use to measure this in the light of a continent that is rich in its own literature?  What do we know of Zulu literature, Ethiopian literature, ancient and contemporary…? Are we saying all these literary traditions need one father…?

Does the “Grand Narrative” mean there is no place for such?  Does it mean all those other parts do not exist? I think not. 











One thought on “Nomboniso Gasa, The so-called “Grand Narrative”: phrase that irritates like a buzzing mosquito

  1. I have become somewhat of a cyber stalker, following what you say and think. I find myself nodding in agreement or whispering a soft yes to something you have written. I am sure this might constitute a problem, but a nice one- I think. The thing about the concept of the grand narrative is that it seeks to colonise and to destroy because it is a jealous god. It want no other truths/stories to be uttered, listened to or considered. It performs the same function as religion and “Culture”. It’s intention is to create the world in its own image. The death of critical thinking and engagement…

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