I am, I confess, a sucker for a beautiful cover. I first encountered Yvette Greslé’s Unearthed on Instagram while I was in India last fall, looked it up, was intrigued, and ordered it as soon as I got home. Greslé is a London-based art historian and writer, born in South Africa, who spent her childhood in Seychelles, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, before being sent to boarding school in Johannesburg as a teenager. Moving between time and place, she explores the “ordinariness of the colonial order,” and the ongoing normalization, the very mundanity, of racism, intolerance, and violence. She stands witness, ever conscious of the advantages afforded her as white. And of the complicity she bears.
Greslé is, as she describes herself, a sensitive child. She is aware of ghosts. Her dreams are suffused with quiet symbolism. Her mother tells her she is a hypochondriac. It is not good to be too sensitive. Yet, it is this sensitivity, a certain pensiveness, that makes Unearthed such a compelling and thought-provoking read. Spare and elegiac, this short work occupies a liminal space between memoir and social discourse. As the author draws on personal experience and a wide selection of readings to trouble uncomfortable questions of privilege and prejudice, she offers an unflinchingly honest assessment of the society that formed her.
Memories layered on memories create an essay that is beautiful, painful, and wise.
The early island years have a magical tropical glow—white sand beaches, cinnamon, bananas and pineapples—but with distinctly colonial manners, and a sharp divide between the French and English residents and the Creole population. Greslé’s father was born in Seychelles , a descendant of French settlers. He had moved back from Johannesburg with his South African wife and young family in 1974, only two years before the country achieved independence from Britain, which led, by the late seventies, to a period of great political unrest. This in turn heightened tensions at home that the author, still a child, finds herself caught in:
My mother wanted to leave the island but my father wanted to stay. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, crockery would fly around the house and I would hear my parents shouting. My father couldn’t let go of the land and when he asked me if I wanted to leave the island, I shook my head and said no and this ‘no’ was without ambiguity. From childhood, I was conscious of an emotional bond to my home on the mountain and the land that surrounded it and, as I grew older, I was conscious of not wanting to give it up. Now I can see that my identity and sense of self were wound up in my father’s name and the possession of this land. It was only later that I would come to fully grasp and develop a language for what was truly at stake and for whom. I would come to see how I was positioned within a history embedded in a racial violence and white entitlement.
In 1984, Greslé will be sent to boarding school in Johannesburg and her experiences in South Africa, through her teens and into her adult years would deepen her understanding of, as she puts it, “the logic of white supremacy” and the “human capacity for brutality.” It is not a pretty picture, nor is the violence always obvious—it can be inflicted on the soul as readily as the body. At times, Greslé herself will experience othering, at times when her own ethnic origin is questioned, or just because a capacity to scapegoat exists even within groups that are otherwise (presumably) alike.
This is a memoir that, more than tracing the events of a life lived, traces an evolution of thought. It simmers with controlled emotional tension, and while moving back and forth in time, a frequent use of the present tense creates a sense of immediacy. Greslé shares moments of pain and loss without self-pity or sentimentality. Her reading and her experiences in post-Apartheid South Africa and, currently, in London, reinforce her impatience with the insistence that we have moved beyond the divisions of old—that they are of another era, or rendered no more severe than the disadvantages we each can catalog in our own lives. Or, if these intolerances still exist or may in some places be rising again, it has nothing to do with us as individuals. I’m not like that. Its time to move on.
But there is no line to be drawn between the past and the present. The past cannot simply be buried and forgotten about. The past lives on in the lives of the descendants of those who have suffered the kinds of things that don’t just go away, the kinds of things that inhabit bodies and memories. Racism, xenophobia and prejudice in all of their iterations are not simply historical artefacts, inanimate objects.
This is one of the most deeply affecting essays I’ve encountered—an example of the way our own stories can be told to tell stories that are larger and more important than we are. The kind of stories that are difficult but need to be told. It feels as if Greslé has wrung each sentence from her heart; toward the end she admits that she is restless, that these swirling memories and images, all the concerns unanswered, are taking an emotional toll. So many critical questions. So few answers. But this thoughtful meditation, this personal story, rich with passages from writers and thinkers and an accompanying reading list, and that’s a good a place to start as any.
Unearthed by Yvette Greslé is published by Copy Press. It is no. 13 in their Common Intellectual Series of 100-page paperbacks. Each title makes a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.