This incendiary debut of linked stories narrates the everyday lives of Soweto residents, from the early years of apartheid to its dissolution and beyond.
Set in Soweto, the urban heartbeat of South Africa, Innards tells the intimate stories of everyday black folks processing the savagery of apartheid with grit, wit, and their own distinctive bewildering humor. Rich with the thrilling textures of township language and life, it braids the voices and perspectives of an indelible cast of characters into a breathtaking collection flush with forgiveness, rage, ugliness, and beauty. Meet a fake PhD and ex-freedom fighter who remains unbothered by his own duplicity, a girl who goes mute after stumbling upon a burning body, twin siblings nursing a scorching feud, and a woman unraveling under the weight of a brutal encounter with the police. At the heart of these stories about deceit and ambition, appalling violence, familial turmoil, and love is South Africa’s history of slavery, colonization, and apartheid. Like many Americans today, Innards’ characters must navigate the shadows of the recent past alongside the uncertain opportunities of the promised land.
Full to bursting with life, in all its complexities and vagaries, Innards is an uncompromising depiction of black South Africa. Visceral and tender, it heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.
Release date: June 6, 2023
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Print pages: 213
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene
They came riding cattle lorries. Their whole world traveling with them, herded onto truck flatbacks. Thick woolen blankets folded into warm wishes. Matching chairs and lorry-scratched dining tables bought piecemeal on layaway. And head-scarved Granny, wrapped at the waist in a brown plaid blanket that doubled as cot when the baby fussed.
Out, those cattle wagons drove. Out. Past the city, Park Station behind them and old Ferreirasdorp decaying with the sunset. Out, meandering with Commissioner Street beyond an empty yellow wasteland dumped by Crown Mines. Out and into a barren veld bordered on either side by municipal sewerage farms.
They came like that, curious about this place. Curiouser still—entire families and their lives packed into the same space where a lamb probably hoof-kneaded sheep shit on its way to the slaughterhouse yesterday. The lorry beds were all metal and wooden plank, with mesh cage roofs like a chicken coop. Swine haulers, those lorries, now overloaded with babies, steamer trunks and loose cupboard drawers. Everything unhinged.
I wasn’t sure which family was mine. And by the standing around and waiting, pointing at numbers, eyes searching, these natives themselves seemed uncertain which of us was whose.
A short man with an orange mustache and a squat face took control, clipboard in hand, a neat row of pencils peeking from pocket. “Yebo Baas,” the men answered him, showing their dompass. The Baas then gave each man a key with his number. Some slipped a few shillings into his hand for another number promising an indoor toilet. Then they packed off for this house. A thin mattress balancing on the wife’s head. A heavy washtub carried one-one on either side by the children.
—7678B? Clipboard Baas called my name. A man in a dark suit walked toward me, his wife behind—her white heels stepping into his imprints, so that their soles cleaved to one another in the dust. The children’s weren’t far behind. Stop, Granny shouted, Stop! Stop that running! But the mother was running, catching her husband’s shadow and moving past him, toward me. He watched her; let her. So that a woman first entered my threshold.
Her heels were soiled by now, the color of rust, but she didn’t notice, running into my rooms, thrusting windows to the world, standing with her arms the width of my walls. As if embracing my full girth, everything inside me. As if to say, Yes. This will do.
Only with her children also running in and out of the rooms—rooms so small they could be folded up and stuffed into the lorry-fastened wardrobe—only then did the dirt floor disappoint her. Little feet kicked up dust and stone. The wife looked around, shushing the children, but her gaze met her husband’s and the steady smile growing on Granny’s face. We’ll have to plaster, she said. And . . . paint.
Men arrived. In long trousers that sat low, far low, below bare chests and taupe sweat. Ethel—I know her name now—Ethel hummed as she cooked, knifing tenderly through gummy seeds, fingering small tastes to her tongue. The smell of fried onion skin sizzling in sunflower oil and ripe tomatoes filled me, as if I were lungs.
She brought a tray out to the men. The tray held a small washbasin with soapy water and a clean cloth. Next to this was a large dish offering last night’s leftovers fattened with fresh tomato gravy. Ethel bent to pass the cloth and washbasin around, putting the food on the ground. Bodies close, she smelled how the sun made itself rancid on the men’s skin. She wound her neck—slowly, absently. When she took her lunch inside with Granny, her fingers caressed her nape just as absently, the same space between neck and spine that Tom’s hands and tongue had chiseled smooth late last night.
—It’s quite tasty, Granny said.
—Yes, Ethel smiled, e monate.
Tom—Ethel’s husband—was the sole sound I heard whispering to the night. It was quiet. Ethel was quiet, nervous their hunger would stir the children. She forced her pleasure into the pillow. A pleasure as silent as muffled pain.
—Have you heard the one about the Boer and his missus? Tom asked.
—No, she shook her head, gently, as if a full head shake would wake the baby beside them and the children on the now plastered floor.
—The missus, said Tom.
—Asks her Baas . . .
Tom stopped. Chuckling.
—That’s how krom daai man is, he says, still laughing.
—He orders his wife call him Baas!
Ethel smiled, wry. I could see her bare teeth flash at the asbestos roof that is my own mouth.
—Anyways, Tom goes on, the missus asks her Baas: But where were you, just now getting in, so vroeg in the morning? Where did you spend the night? The Boer scratches his head a bit and thinks quick on his feet:
—Ag, man, vrou! the skelm begins. Woman! I was at that friend of you’s. Susanna.
Go on, the wife’s face seems to say.
—Well. Her husband took a turn. For the worse. And just like that . . . Poop! He snaps a finger. The hairy bliksem died. He’s dead! The Boeremeisie sniffles. You know how you women are. Seeing this, the Baas is bloody chuffed with himself, swelling at his stupid cleverness. He doesn’t even notice his missus scratching about till she’s fully dressed, fetching her gloves and looking for a scarf to cover her head.
—Vrou? he asks. Waarheen nou?
—To Susanna’s, the missus replies. She’ll need to borrow you another night and maybe some other things also.
—Nee man! says the Boer, quick-quick on his feet, again scratching that head.
—They ring while you dressing. Turns out that old fat bastard isn’t dead after all. He rose. Up! Just now-now. Like Jesus! He rose up from the dead!
Ethel put a finger to Tom’s lips, stifling their giggles. She peered over his body at the young ones, sleeping below the mattress. Little chests rose and fell with the deep breath of children’s dreams.
More families arrived, taking up the empty numbers all around me, until the neighborhood pulsed with fat gossip at communal taps, with hammering nails shouting response to workmen songs. Radios belted out news from faraway places where news happens—places so scary the fear seeped through the speakers and settled beneath my trenched roots. Stray chickens wandered in. Flocks of ashy children pecked about the street in gray packs that smeared their idleness and wonder everywhere people sprouted. Life grew without record or resolve. Daily routine—sewerage bucket dumps early mornings and coal deliveries before sunset—made rhythm out of time.
Ethel walked into the kitchen, tired, fed coal to the furnace and placed a large round-bottomed kettle on the boil. Her daughters, older now with small seeds of womanhood, clung to sleep under the table. She sang, softly, a silly song about a girl who slept past sunrise, her crops shriveling into snakes. The girls woke. Ethel poured a cup of black tea and carried a large tin tub, filled with Tom’s bath, into their room.
Tom’s suit jacket, pants and tie lay spread across the bed like a Kliptown jumble sale. His shirt hung from the door handle, a soft yellow stain warming its armpits. After washing, he reached first for a sleeveless undershirt, then his shirt. Ethel stood behind him, folding his work uniform—Tom never left or returned in anything but a suit, red-feathered fedora in hand. He unraveled his tie’s knot for a fresh start: right end over left, mimicking the shape of a cross. He fussed, looking into the mirror, then at his wife’s double.
—You look like someone getting late for work, Ethel said, naughty mischief overtaking her smile.
—But my shoes don’t even shine yet, Tom pointed.
—Okay, okay, Mr. Very Important, High-Class, Top-Label Shoes. You keep powdering your nose. You keep preening and primping and you’ll really be late this time.
Quickly, in a single fluid motion, Tom spat spittle on the shoes, rubbed hard with his polishing cloth and was out the door.
—Ehn!? Ethel called out, laughing.
—Mr. High-Class Shoes! She charged after him. What about your uniform?
Tom walked out, barefoot and skinny-chested, soon worrying earthworms between his spindly fingers, smelling the soil and clamping its slight sweat. It was the weekend. He bent low to the ground, digging beds for black arum lilies with a retooled serving spoon, imagining the arums’ elegant swan necks reaching one day beyond his knee. He came next to a frail jacaranda sapling, carrying water to it on his head, like a woman. His plants took root. They didn’t believe, as authorities do, this land too sterile—a suitable plot to blackspot with natives. Maybe it was the sewerage fattening the soil. Engorging this parcel of uncharted, unwanted earth.
Lording over Tom’s Eden, as if greening the grass, was a red-hatted gnome with a seriousness to his mischief—a voluminous beard and furrowed brow, a plump but upright body and unseen, hiding hands, held behind his back. I wasn’t bothered by this midget little he-man. Grass leaves must’ve seemed a thick forest to his eyes, the distant hydrangeas an unreachable land. I could see beyond the hydrangea hedge, to the invisible fence within its branches. I could see beyond that even, to where the garden met an unpaved road. Old Potchefstroom Road. Named for a sleepy little dorp where Brits held Boers in concentration camps, before the Boers built a giant concentration camp out of the whole country.
Weekends also brought visitors. A brother or third cousin carrying urgent news from home.
—Buti, they called Tom.
—Your little uncle’s son is marrying. The bride’s father wants thirty bulls.
—Tjo! Tjo! Tjo! Someone would cluck their tongue, or whistle cleanly, or burst into spastic laughter.
Sometimes Tom had already heard about the trouble—about another relative stripped of his farmland by Verwoerd and the white man’s law.
—Two hundred fifty rands? he’d ask, stacking the bills on the table. At least that’ll get him some blankets. An unforgivable winter is coming, Tom would sigh.
Guests were received in the front room. At the proud dining table scratched by the cattle lorry on the drive out. Tom sat opposite his visitors—there wasn’t enough room to squeeze a chair at the head. Ethel served tea on a tray, her sugar bowl matching the rose-blooming cups. The milk jug, also part of her set, had a jagged chip on the lip—like a pretty girl with knocked-out sawteeth. Visitors stayed for at least one meal. This was understood as soon as an unexpected but booming knock filled the house. Ko-ko-ko! the knuckles rapped, despite my front door standing wide ajar. If it was Sunday, the children cursed under silent breath, knowing a minor chicken piece would be split six ways between them, the coveted drumstick now firmly out of the question. Their next best hope was an empty bag. If the relative’s sack was light, it held no overnight plans.
This was how Ethel’s youngest brother, King, arrived. From Transkei. He showed up on a Sunday morning. Ncgo-ncgo-ncgo? His knock was light, uncertain. Come in! Ethel shouted, throwing her arms around him on seeing who it was. The girls—helping with chores, the boys playing outside—looked on, shy-like. He took off his hat and a tatty, threadbare jacket. He shook each girl’s hand and asked their names in deep, rhythmic Xhosa. Kingsley carried not a single bag. He stayed a whole month.
Late nights, King hid outside. He’d climb into the big metallic coal bin. Sometimes it was full but he’d force his way in, parting the rock with his body. The police never checked the coal lockbox, hard to say why. And after each dompass raid, he’d emerge from the shiny bin sweaty and soot-black.
—Sister, he’d sulk, this is how you live?
But Ethel would only poke fun, mocking his Cape Colored–like blackface, sommer another Boesman cruising the Coon Carnival.
—So, King. You’d rather turn Colored than go in a mine shaft and sing Môre! Baas? Ethel would ask, laughing, trying to pump air back in the room by going straight for the jugular vein: Kingsley still hadn’t found work. Which meant he had no white man to sign his papers. Which made Kingsley the thing they stamp in a dompass before deportation: “Prohibited Alien.” But instead of Ethel’s words stinging, Kingsley would strum an invisible guitar in response to the jabbing, everyone laughing. He’d bare his teeth through his coal-colored blackface, mimicking Coloreds mimicking black savages at their New Year’s Eve minstrel show. The children would join in also, singing and blowing make-believe horns, clapping whatever they could find into tambourines.
Less than a month later, Kingsley gave Ethel another reason to play make-believe, this time with the old woman Makhadze. It was after Tom answered an unmistakable Bang-Bang-Bang! late one night. Someone tipped them off, Ethel later told Tom. The police had barely considered Tom’s papers, swatting off his identity book like a clumsy flea.
—We hear you have a fat rat squatting around here, the black policeman boomed.
—Is that right? another asked Tom, making a show of tapping his baton.
What happened next is the two policemen walked Tom outside, toward the back of the yard, behind the toilet. Made him unlatch the box. Shined a blackout beam onto the peat rock. The coal lit up under torchlight, glistening, like something strangely beautiful. Like burning candlewick—so intently black. Or pools of oil resistant to rain.
Somebody told them, Ethel repeated in whispers. They’d blown out all the candles and crept into bed. The girls in the kitchen. Granny on the sofa and the boys under the scratched dining table. Everyone wide awake, pretending faraway sleep.
—You have to do something, Ethel begged Tom.
—Something like what? Tom’s tone was sharp.
—Isn’t it enough he wasn’t in the box? They didn’t catch him, Ethel. What else do you want me to do? Shit out a fresh dompass?
—Tom, please! Ethel pleaded. We don’t even know where he’s sleeping.
—He’s a man, Ethel.
—A Missing Man!
Ethel never shouted, never raised her voice over Tom’s. Tom sighed. Seeming to shrink from the effort.
—Every man passes through this, Ethy. You think we want to part our arse for the Baas and sleep in his jail cells?
It was harsh, what Tom was saying. But he said it soft and even, like a loaf of industrial-grade butter.
—King is a man, Ethel. He’ll survive.
Makhadze lived in the dreamworld. She was known to fetch stubborn babies and their mischievous spirits who refused to wake from their ancestors’ dreams and into birth. Whenever Ethel’s moonbelly burst under secret tide, Makhadze was long in the room, preparing with Granny. Even Granny knew better than to argue with Makhadze. She’d ably delivered the twins after they came feet first. ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...