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Out of Africa: The Meaning of Place

There is something very personal about the concept of “place.”

People ascribe meaning to places they visit during their lives, and those places become significant through the time they spent there and by the memories that are made. And through shared language and background, people can find a collective meaning or a disjointed one about place.

Friday afternoon’s conversation Out of Africa brought together Abdi Aden, Russell Eldridge, and Eben Venter to share their diverse experiences about their African birthplaces.

The three men, two of whom are white South Africans, have lives both familiar and different from one another. Aden, whose aptly titled Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man details his life as a Somalian refugee, speaks of a Somalia that thrived, teeming with life and commerce and, above all, happiness.

Aden‘s memories of place are largely tied to language; his book was written in English because, he says, no one in Somalia will want to read about the bad parts of his life there.

English gives Aden a platform to speak his story where otherwise he could not. In this way, his sense of place and more specifically his idea of ‘home’ is just as tied to Australia, where he has built a life for himself, as it is to Somalia where his early years were spent.

These memories were so vivid and bright, and he spoke with such passion. I could almost visualise Somalia as he sees it as he delved into the details of his flight as a refugee to Melbourne. I wonder how a place, which offered so much heartache could still seem beautiful to him.

But that’s the way it is, I think.

‘Place’ is not just experience; we keep close the memories we wish to, and the rest becomes a footnote in a larger piece about our personal life.

The love with which all these men spoke of their home country was evident; each had good memories of their lives in Africa, as well as having experienced a sobering reality that even the most meaningful of places can have a dark side.

Eldridge talks how his novel Harry Mac helped him work through the psychological trauma of having lived in a society that perpetuated institutionalized racism. Set in the 1960s, the book is a coming-of-age story set during South Africa’s tumultuous apartheid era. The story’s background reflects the political turmoil of South Africa as a young boy, Tom, discovers the terrible secrets hidden by the titular character’s father.

South Africa’s apartheid regime also shaped Eldridge’s early life in ways he wouldn’t fully realize until he became removed from it. The government, essentially running a police state, and all of the people around him were practically screaming that everything was normal even while the country committed huge injustices against people of colour.

Eben Venter deals with a more modern South Africa, as he paints a picture of a remote farm in a desert landscape in Wolf, Wolf. Here he reflects a sort of tension between old and new through a relationship between an old-world patriarch and his gay son.

Wolf, Wolf’s story deals largely with fear, particularly the fear of not becoming a man, and Venter uses the suffocatingly close relationship between this ailing father and his caretaker son to illustrate this tension.

Venter wrote it in Afrikaans because, as he said, that was the way he felt it should be. The language is his mother tongue, and it felt right to him to write it that way, working closely with an English translator to create an entirely new English work.

Perhaps in a way, the story Venter created reveals a layer of anxiety. This is the sort of thing that Eldridge discusses as well — how is anyone meant to contend with the contrast between the happiness of their early life and the slavery that their government imposed on black and coloured South Africans?

How can you reconcile memory and fact?

Experience changes the way that we perceive things that have happened to us, and as time goes on these men all have had something about their homeland to come to terms with.

I’ve left this conversation with a picture of three men for whom place has special significance; like most people they have faced challenges along life’s path, but it is incredible how different their experiences have been when they lived and grew in such similar places.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

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