In this article I explore the role and function of the characters Aunt Geertruida in Kikoejoe (1996, published in English as Kikuyu in 1998) and Aunt Zan in 30 nagte in Amsterdam (2008, published in English as 30 nights in Amsterdam in 2012). Painter (2008:11) indicates the character of the “eccentric aunt” as a recurring element in the work of Van Heerden. Because of their eccentricities, the aunts in the novels are marginalised in their families and the societies they live in. According to Foster (2004:13) marginal characters in the Afrikaans literature are often also liminal characters. In my investigation of the novels I find that this is also the case with Aunt Geertruida and Aunt Zan. I therefore link my discussion to Arnold van Gennep’s and Victor Turner’s theories on liminality. Van Gennep (1960:11) uses the term liminal in his description of the rites of passage in societies. He identifies three phases in the process of initiation: preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal or threshold rites (transitional rites) and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation) (Van Gennep 1960:21). I investigate whether Aunt Geertruida and Aunt Zan as liminal characters ever reach the postliminal phase or remain caught in the liminal phase.
Van Schalkwyk (2007:14) describes the difference between a purely marginal position and a liminal position as follows: “[N]ot every border is a limen [...] There is nothing necessarily liminal or transformative about the experience of the voluntary or involuntary outsider who is marginalized in spatial, social or psychological terms, who finds him-/herself between the devil and the deep, blue sea.” The liminal phase is associated with reflection, transformation and creativity. Neophytes (Turner’s term for those going through initiation rites) are stripped of any insignia, rank and secular clothing (Turner 1964:8–9). It is in this “betwixt and between” position (Turner 1974a:81) that neophytes can reflect on their society. Artists, writers and prophets therefore often choose to remain permanently in the liminal phase in order to escape from the clichés of society (Turner 2008:120).
The aunts’ lives are intertwined with those of their nephews: Fabian Latsky in Kikoejoe and Henk de Melker in 30 nagte in Amsterdam. The aunts make a big impression on their nephews as children and also influence the decisions they make later in life. I discuss whether Fabian and Henk can also be considered to be marginal and/or liminal characters.
Kikoejoe is, for the most part, set in the 1960s. My findings regarding Aunt Geertruida are that she is marginalised because of her sexual orientation (she is lesbian) and her liberal anti-apartheid political views. She can also be considered a liminal character, though, because she crosses the boundary between the South African and European (Amsterdam) space. Geertruida found out that cancer of the female parts runs in her family and as a result had her breasts and uterus removed as a young woman (11). She also prefers to dress in male clothes. Turner (1974a:81) describes liminal subjects as “necessarily ambiguous” in that they fall outside any conventional classification structures. Geertruida’s ambiguous sexuality therefore also makes her a liminal character, and she finds a certain degree of freedom in it (11). However, she never reaches the postliminal phase since she remains a wandering traveller that is not at home in either South Africa or overseas. With regard to Fabian, he also becomes a traveller of the world as an adult. As a writer he occupies the liminal space and, like his aunt, never reaches the postliminal phase.
30 nagte in Amsterdam is set in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa, with flashbacks to the apartheid era and anti-apartheid struggle. As a young woman Zan is marginalised because of her sexual promiscuity, involvement in the struggle politics of the time, and her status as an epilepsy sufferer. Zan literally goes through initiation rites when she joins an anti-apartheid group named after Robert Sobukwe. The final phase in her initiation is to watch the body of her lover being burned after he was killed because he was considered to be a threat to the group (50). Zan’s epileptic seizures also take on the form of initiation rites as described by Van Gennep in that her seizures consist of three phases (23–5). In the last phase of her seizures she enters a dreamlike state and acts as a type of shaman or prophet – figures often associated with liminality (Aguirre, Quance and Sutton 2000:69). For Zan the liminal phase is a permanent condition: she goes through the liminal rites of transition every time she has a seizure, without ever reaching postliminal incorporation. Her inclusion in the anti-apartheid group is also short-lived. The group is seen as a joke by the rest of the struggle movement; it is forced to disband, and Zan has to flee to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam people are suspicious of her as a white Afrikaans woman, and she is suspected of being an agent for the apartheid government (374). Like Geertruida, Zan is a character that remains in the liminal and marginal space and is not at home in either South Africa or Europe.
Henk temporarily escapes from his careful, marginal existence as a museum assistant in a small town in the Karoo when he receives a letter informing him that his Aunt Zan has left him her estate and that he must travel to Amsterdam in order to claim it. During his stay in Amsterdam he goes through a liminal phase of transformation: he looks at the world in a different way and considers exploring his creativity by writing a novel on Cornelius van Gogh, Vincent and Theo van Gogh’s unknown brother who lived and died in South Africa, instead of the dry historical monographies he usually writes (204, 312–3). At the end of the novel Henk discovers that Zan is still alive and he takes her back to South Africa. All signs are there that he will not write the novel on Cornelius van Gogh and will return to his marginal position in South African society. He temporarily enters the liminal phase without ever reaching postliminal incorporation.
In 30 nagte in Amsterdam Van Heerden addresses a further aspect of liminality, namely the liminal position of the postcolonial subject. According to Wenzel (2007:45) postcolonial literature embodies the concept of liminality. Zan and Henk’s only remaining relative is Zan’s grandson Alphonse. Alphonse is one of the many faceless people of immigrant descent trying to make a living on the periphery of European cities (347). His identity is not tied to Africa or Europe: Henk describes him as a “no-man between continents. No one” (304, my translation). In postcolonial South Africa the De Melkers’ legacy will die with Zan and Henk and there is eventually no place for the Afrikaner.
Keywords: Etienne van Heerden; Kikuyu; 30 nights in Amsterdam; liminality; postcolonial literature
Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die tante uit Nederland as liminale karakter in Etienne van Heerden se Kikoejoe (1996) en 30 nagte in Amsterdam (2008)