Title: Off-centre and out of focus: Growing up “coloured” in South Africa
Author: Nadia Kamies
Publisher: Fourthwall Books and ESI Press
Off-centre and out of focus: Growing up “coloured” in South Africa is a memoir which details Nadia Kamies’s life as she grew up in South Africa; her reflections are found alongside a collection of photos from family and friends. Within the collection, she also grapples with the racial classification of “coloured” and uses her stories as a form of resistance against this imposed label. The book subsequently attempts to deal with notions of stereotyping, class and respectability, gender and justice. Nadia Kamies simultaneously hypothesises the national identity of South Africa(ns). Unfortunately, the biggest issue with this collection is that it implicitly implies that the term coloured is problematic, so some of the opinions postulated in this creative nonfiction work are singed with a sense of repugnance toward the coloured community, especially when translating certain beliefs into contemporary South Africa. This is further emboldened by the voice in the collection which continues to distance itself from the coloured community, as her writing explores how her family’s respectability should have given them an exemption against any negative belief or experience. My anodyne opinion about this collection is that it’s a valuable text because it captures an individual’s alternate perspective about this experience in great depth; this helps to create a broad constellation of literature detailing a type of coloured experience which in the past has been erased, irrespective of the fact that some of the beliefs are negative and sometimes hostile.
The book opens with a photo of a doily and a poem which Kamies wrote during her PhD, a study which takes a look into the experience of being coloured in South Africa, with a key investigation into how shame has formed an integral part of the coloured experience. Her writing in this poem is evocative, as she talks about how her grandmother creates these doilies as a form of archiving and connecting her genealogy and surviving oppression, immediately giving the reader the impression that this creative nonfiction work handles embittered and intimate material:
Round and round she goes
weaving circles of where she came from,
each stitch a link to the past,
a chain from Arab trade routes to Africa,
interlocking loops of yarn,
tiny stitches helping to feed her family (Kamies, 2023:7)
Kamies then begins to take the reader on a journey, introducing her lineage through her parents’ first date – watching the movie Trapeze at the Avalon Bioscope – and in the first chapter brings the reader to an understanding of the impetus of the collection. It seems to her that there is a dire need to explore her family’s lineage and legacy; this story itself brings itself to a halt when Kamies regales how she and her father were working on a creative project which was never completed due to his passing. This collection becomes a space where she is able to pay tribute to her father’s life. In an interview, Kamies stated that this book was her way of processing her grief, as well as a project to turn her PhD thesis into a book (SABC News, 2023).
Her descriptions pair well with the photos she’s collected, which really proves a skill in ekphrasis as she infers how these photos are monuments of resistance against the ideas that apartheid imposed against the coloured body.
Considering that the collection is a work of creative nonfiction, when reading Kamies’s more personal moments we are taken into parts of her life which are quite visceral. The reader is taken into her family’s experiences, and when she chooses, Kamies is able to describe her terrains in great detail. Her descriptions pair well with the photos she’s collected, which really proves a skill in ekphrasis as she infers how these photos are monuments of resistance against the ideas that apartheid imposed against the coloured body. The bulk of the collection maintains an academic, didactic tone when outlining apartheid and other markers of the political climate, as well as in her characterisation of her identity and the ideas that come with it. This tone is also found in her autobiographical moments; this is helpful as it invokes a sense of objectivity in subjective experiences, which makes certain facts and statements become tangible, yet the reader never loses sight of Kamies’s opinion or belief.
Personally, this is the most redeeming quality this book possesses as it develops this catalogue of life and highlights moments where the existence of coloured people becomes concrete, established. One moment that I found particularly striking was when Kamies talks about the passing of a medora which she wore as a veil at her wedding, and which came from her grandmother. I like these types of moments because they are almost apolitical, showing Kamies at her best, showing her family’s lineage as fractured but still beautiful, still existing, and her being at peace with that – sometimes. Her descriptions of these photos begin to fill in the background of the world Kamies found/finds herself in, which also really helps ground the collection.
In general, a creative nonfiction asks the reader to trust in the author’s voice in revealing the truth.
In general, a creative nonfiction asks the reader to trust in the author’s voice in revealing the truth. The problem in this is that sometimes the spectrum of a certain experience cannot always be displayed in one recounting of it. That is to say, Off-centre and out of focus cannot be a definitive guideline to all the experiences of coloured bodies in a past or present and perhaps future time, but is rather an enclave. This brings me to the second issue. In Kamies’s PhD thesis, she states that she’s investigating the idea that “the desire to prove respectability … is central to the experience of ‘colouredness’, tightly bound to a legacy of slavery and the ‘civilising’ mission of the church and Christian National Education” (2023:xx). There’s an issue with generalising this type of thing, because it assumes that all people of colour experience this, when in fact the more contemporary bodies have long abandoned this idea.
It’s a request for empathy, after all. There is a tone of sadness which lives in all parts of the collection; the text, the photos and the subtext are all tainted with a sense of dejection. This indicates that there is a deep sense of burden in the words written in Off-centre and out of focus. The collection is a chance to lower the f-stop on a dark time in her life, to see if she’s able to decode the distortion in front of her.
When it comes to the naming in this book, I find using apostrophes around the term coloured problematic. While the term does stem from an apartheid ideology, it has been reclaimed by people who have taken pride in the landscape coloured people have started creating. We have also moved into a time where POC (people of colour) have discovered that we are allowed to reject the master narrative that imperialism has imposed, leaning into an existence which moves past this supposed idea that coloured people are living to prove themselves respectable. The subsequent culture torrent should not be attributed to the idea of mitigating shame or scandal, but rather to the need for representation and an identity far removed from what identities used to mean in South Africa – that is, the political meaning, of course.
Kamies’s blind spot is that she has applied an idea to a group of people who are changing indefinitely and have redefined what it means to be coloured – beyond the previous political identity as well.
The idea Kamies proposes is that we shouldn’t use the term because of what it used to mean. But if we do that, we erase a culture that has just begun to find its feet, and we leave that meaning incubated in the word, allowing that power still to exist. The use of the apostrophes, to me, indicates the sense that the word is incorrect, out of place, and that there’s a substitute to describe different group phenomena. We sometimes hate certain terms only because of the class system and stereotypes attached to them. But if we claim this term, as many have done both then and now, and contribute to the expansion of a coloured cartography, we end up in a place where we are able to be unbothered by identity and respectability politics. The mistake was that the onus in this book was placed on contesting the ideas of colouredness by weaving a tapestry of the good and bad. This collection unfortunately misses the mark of representation. Its framing, its tone and its spirit are, in my opinion, not of unity but of division. No matter how much valuable historical matter is presented, it is the existential meaning that is concerning. We need to stop defining identities in terms of what they lack; it’s undermining.
In conclusion, Kamies does make a good point in archiving her personal experience with apartheid, and uses her family’s and friends’ photos to cement them in history. Her notion that shame is inherent to coloureds and POC definitely rings true for the epoch of apartheid. However, Kamies’s blind spot is that she has applied an idea to a group of people who are changing indefinitely and have redefined what it means to be coloured – beyond the previous political identity as well. The notion of respectability politics and trying to import that into contemporary South Africa results in a rhetoric that says respectability is what an individual should strive for, as it supposedly emancipates them from the shame of having a POC body (irrespective of the fact that this might not be Kamies’s intention), as well as the idea that trying to ignore race in South Africa is a viable method of reconciliation between different groups of people. One valuable notion is that we are still to learn how to see different individuals as human before we see their complexities – inasmuch as that we are to assume that everyone has a different life experience, yet acknowledge that we are all able to experience a range of emotions.