Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Ambi Generation: second skins

“The Ambi Generation: second skins in southern african fiction” talk given at Second Skins: Cloth and Difference event at the INIVA Institute, London (April 29, 2009) organised by Christine Checinska

Reading southern African fiction with attention to the presence of textiles reveals the considerable contribution cloth (as metaphor, structure and symbol) provides in the narration of the region. Cloth, and the skin beneath it, often acts as a record keeper of unnamed violence against the body. I would like to suggest that reading southern African fiction through textiles communicates events and emotions that language alone tends to oversimplify, or even avoid. For example, in the fiction of Yvonne Vera, we are introduced to the Ambi Generation, a group of characters who treat the surfaces of their own bodies much like a garment to be bleached and swapped for an alternative identity. Dambudzo Marechera’s character in his short story “Black Skins, What Mask” tries to “scrub the blackness out of skin”. Zakesi Mda inverts our expectations of innocence and traditional attire, dressing the protagonist of She Plays with Darkness in an “unfading red dress” that escapes the expected passage of time, while the antagonists arrive in traditional “flowing West African robes”. And finally, Tsitsi Dangarembga in Nervous Conditions creates a main character driven to the brink of insanity at the sight of her parents re-enacting their wedding vows dressed for the Christian ideal of a white ceremony. In each case, the textile reveals that the superficial associations attached to dress are linked to meanings that are in fact far more loaded and complex. As Vera’s narrator in Without a Name explains with great irony, “freedom was skin deep but joyous and tantalising… [f]reedom squeezed out of a tube was better than nothing, freedom was, after all, purchasable.”

image: untitled (2006) Christine Checinska