Farida Karodia’s Other Secrets

Abstract: Farida Karodia, born and raised in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, has taught in South Africa and Zambia and spent twenty-six years in Canada. She has reworked her first novel, Daughters of the Twilight, published by The Women’s Press in 1986 but not available in South Africa at that time because of the apartheid regime’s proscription of alternate black writings. She has turned it into an epic three part novel, Other Secrets, newly published by Penguin, which explores the mother-daughter relationship in the running crisis of the apartheid situation, updating it to include new family alignments in the post-apartheid South Africa.

Keywords: Feminist writing, South African Indian writing in English, postcolonial black women’s writing, apartheid, new family alignment

Farida Karodia was born and raised in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. She has taught in South Africa and Zambia and spent twenty-six years in Canada where she wrote radio dramas for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Karodia returned to South Africa from exile in Canada in 1994 during the time of the first democratic elections in the country. She has reworked her first novel, Daughters of the Twilight, published by The Women’s Press in 1986, but not available in South Africa at that time because of the apartheid regime’s proscription of alternate black writings. She has turned it into an epic three part novel, Other Secrets, newly published by Penguin. It explores the mother-daughter relationship in the running crisis of the apartheid situation, updating it to include new family alignments in the post-apartheid South Africa.

Karodia’s oeuvre includes Coming Home and Other Stories (1988), A Shattering of Silence (1991) and Against an African Sky (1994). Two of her short stories of note are ‘The Red Velvet Dress’ in Opening Spaces: An Anthology of contemporary African Women’s Writing (1999) edited by Yvonne Vera and ‘Friends’ in Her Mother’s Ashes 2 : More stories by South Asian Women in Canada and the United States (1998) edited by Nurjehan Aziz.

A pertinent question in the analysis of Other Secrets is how did the exile from South Africa for over three decades influence Karodia’s writing? Her response is that if she had not gone into exile, she might never have written. It was a whole chain of circumstances that got her started. One of these was writing radio plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She wanted to write, but did not know how to get started. A producer suggested that she do a script. The theme of those radio plays was what was happening in South Africa during the years of the struggle. The radio plays served as a springboard to writing short stories and then novels.

Other Secrets is written into three distinct parts, Daughters, Mothers and Other Secrets.

Karodia’s first novel, Daughters of the Twilight (1986) was reworked to form the first part, Daughters. Why and how did she rework the text to form the opening section of Other Secrets? Karodia explains that Mothers and Other Secrets, the new parts, are a continuation of the opening Daughters. Basically Daughters has remained the same; just some of the details like names have changed – the writer fictionalised the name of the town from Sterkstroom to Soetstroom. But, in fact, all three parts can be considered as distinct books within the one new book. She adds that she wrote them initially as a trilogy. Thereafter, she had to go back and change it to read as one novel. In the old Daughters of the Twilight, there was always the promise of a later book. Karodia outlines that she always knew that she had to come back to Yasmin, the chief protagonist, and tell the rest of her story. She was motivated to write the text by a few things that happened in her life.

Other Secrets covers four generations of women’s lives spanning two continents. When Karodia was asked to share her feelings on writing this work, she replied:

It took a long time. I started parts two and three in 1994. I have
been working on it since then. The way I write is that I don’t sit
down and work on just one project. I work simultaneously on
different projects to maintain my interest. 1

When writers work simultaneously with more than one text, one is inclined to question the occurance of overlaps in the themes or cross-pollination among the different works in progress. Karodia insists that no such overlaps are evident in the texts and her illustration is interesting:

I have just finished an early draft of a new manuscript that I have
been working on together with Other Secrets and it is a totally
different story. It is a story of an old woman and is set in Canada.
It is her last day; she dies at the end of that day. She does not
know it and reflects on her life.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the writings of Karodia’s text and those of other African exiles like Ezekiel Mphahlele, Can Themba, Breyten Breytenbach, Lauretta

Ngcobo, etc. is the fine South African nuance that creeps into their writing during exile.

Karodia succinctly outlines the influence of exile on the psyche of the writer:

I was so homesick. It is reflected in Other Secrets. It took me
about 10 years to get over my despair with living abroad and
being away from South Africa. You need strong feelings for
writing. If I hadn’t been homesick, I am sure that I would not
have been able to write. I find solace and comfort in my writing.
You never lose those images of the landscape; they are always
there with you. If I shut my eyes I can see the landscape of the
Eastern Cape where I grew up. I have not been back there, yet I
still conjure images of the area.

Several of the post-1994 South African stories are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, where the childhood self is treated as other, and challenged by changes taking place in the present. Memory effects the passage into the future and enables moral re-alignment. Texts like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust (2000) and Farida Karodia’s Other Secrets are examples of the evocative, and unmistakably new South African writings that exemplify the seeping, cumulative signs of change. How are Karodia’s personal feelings reflected in Other Secrets?

They are not all personal experiences at all. I really got into the
head of Meena, the main character and narrator. I don’t think
Meena is really like me. She is a character that I created and that
I felt very sympathetic towards. I also admire her sister Yasmin,
a very gutsy woman. I did use some of my personal experiences
in Meena’s and Yasmin’s characters, although I never had a sister
myself. They are two totally different characters. But, I could
link some of my experiences. Maybe, they were the emotions
that I felt at particular times of my life, which I linked to the two.
It is almost like a schizophrenic kind of thing with the two girls.
I grew up in Sterkstroom, a very lonely life. I did not have many
friends and we were the only Indian family in the town. So the
setting is quite authentic. However, while I gave the town the
name of Sterkstroom, I became bogged down psychologically,
emotionally and intellectually in that setting, but then as soon as
I changed the name to Soetstrom it released me. One can’t really
pin down autobiographical experiences in Other Secrets. There
are things like exile, my passport was revoked – but those were
just little things by comparison.

Karodia notes in her text that it was relatively common in the days before mass relocation (the Group Areas Act decreed that the different races shall live apart) to find solitary Asian traders living and conducting business in the heart of the white rural communities. Isolated because of their racial and cultural differences, the Indian families, who were mostly traders in the white areas, built walls around themselves – ‘surviving like bits of flotsam in a hostile sea, practising their religion and conducting their daily routine as inconspicuously as possible’. Sisters Yasmin and Meena, their parents and grandmother are among those who live behind the walls, helpless to control their destinies in the arid years of apartheid, but not entirely without hope… Yasmin’s strivings bring her some of what she wants in life, but not without the tragedy of rape and exile compounded by long-concealed secrets that seem to be passed from mother to daughter.

The leitmotif in Other Secrets, like in Jung Cheng’s Wild Swan’s (1991), is the complex relationship between mothers and daughters. Karodia acknowledges that the motif existed right from the inception of her writings. She wanted to write about really strong women. However, she emphasises that she didn’t want to sideline the father, but she saw him as absolutely helpless. Karodia articulates very strongly from a gender perspective that:

Women, I feel, always had the power to change and create. For
me, they are the most important elements in the story. I come
from a family with very strong women. That was the influence
on me. It was a natural progression to write about strong women.
With such a strong gender standpoint, one would be inclined to easily categorise Karodia’s writings as feminist. Interestingly enough, she strongly refuses to be categorised as a feminist. She thinks that every writer uses some of the influences that she had on her lives.

One has to delve into one’s own history, and Karodia’s evolves from such strong women. She does not see it as a feminist tendency. She was very protective of Papa, not in a feminist way, perhaps in an endearing way. This is what he was, an old man, and she loved the character of Papa, but she could not give him power that non-feminist writers would have liked to see because that was not his character. A recurring theme in the text is that of “fatherhood”. It is significant that both in Yasmin’s and Soraya’s lives, the issue of fatherhood is questioned and the theme is juxtaposed within the dominant female discourse of the text. Karodia takes delight in explaining the use of the theme since it correlates with the title of the text:

The secret is in the lives of both sisters. This is the other secret,
the irony of the story; the father was so attached to Yasmin, yet
he was not really her father. Who is her father? This is where the
other secret comes in. It is not your ordinary run of the mill
secret. It is the final secret. I loved that secret.

Another reason to put Karodia’s writings in the feminist box is the absence of the male voice in this text. She is quick to point out that it is just not a male story, because you couldn’t be a strong male in the apartheid society. As a male you never had the power, no political power, no economic power, so where would your strength be? The ordinary non-white men ended up as alcoholics. A lot of them became derelicts.

Even if I had given Papa the strength, even if I had made him a
younger person he would never have been able to do anything to
alter their circumstances, not in that particular era.
Women, on the other hand, held the family together at home.
The kitchen was a site of comfort, it created a feeling of being at
ease and it was a familiar site. Their power was in the house.
You find this everywhere. Wherever you have a group of
women, they open up to each other. There is a bonding that goes on –
female bonding.
I speak from personal experience. I feel very comfortable in the
kitchen. Maybe it is a historical thing too. This is where we have
always been. This comment is going to get me into a lot of trouble,
especially with women in the workforce, women in positions of
power, etc.

Central to the South African texts is the question of race and identity. Most South African writers have a morbid fascination for politics, and opposition to apartheid motivated much of their writings. Examples that come to mind are Bloke Modisane, Ellen Kuzwayo, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Ashwin Desai, and Athol Fugard. The invasion of the private realm by politics meant that even writers who might usually have ignored politics were forced to deal with it. The personal relationships that might otherwise have been their focus were moved into the political realm. Karodia also addresses race and identity questions in her text. However, she insists that, unlike A Shattering of Silence (1991), she did not want to write from a political context.

But, I couldn’t do it without referring to the political situation of
the day because it affected your life in many ways.
Reclassification of race did take place and people were forced
out of their homes, so how could I avoid those issues?

Karodia outlines the difficulty of growing up under apartheid, the repression and oppression that prevented the young girls from experiencing life to the fullest: ‘It was like having your legs cut off just as you were learning to walk. You saw others – whites – living differently, having what you could never have simply because you were not the right colour. It made you bitter. Yasmin was beautiful and vivacious and thought she had the world at her feet, but she was stopped dead by the system which controlled our lives’ (2000:431).

The tragedy of growing up under apartheid is that despite the fact that Yasmin had ‘more in her little finger’ than all the white girls in Soetstroom put together, she was always on the outside looking in. They were envious of her because she was beautiful and confident, but at the same time they disdained her, knowing that she would never be their equal because she was a coolie meid. The terms “coolie” and “meid” were derogatory labels used against Indians and black women respectively. It is interesting to note that as part of the Black Consciousness Movement, the vulgar labels used against the oppressed were juxtaposed in their life narratives, but this time within an affirmative context, as part of black pride.

Examples of “coolie “ texts that come to mind include Kesaveloo Goonum’s Coolie Doctor (1990), Jay Naidoo’s Coolie Location (1989), and Reshard Gool’s Cape Town Coolie (1990).

Issues of sexuality were markedly absent from black South African writings pre-1994. Writers like Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink and Stephen Gray did not hesitate to include sexual issues in their poetry and novels. When one compares Other Secrets with Karodia’s earlier writings, one has to acknowledge that the directions on sexuality in this text is unexpected, and one is keen to know what the catalyst was?

You couldn’t really be honest about Meena and Yasmin without
touching on it. The sexual issues are part of their characters, of
who they are: Meena being a virgin at twenty-two and Yasmin
obviously not. I deliberately set out to do this. Nothing influenced
me. I just wanted to be honest about their characters.

Farida Karodia is considered one of the important writers within the sub-genre of South African Indian writings in English, alongside Ahmed Essop, Ronnie Govender, Jayaprega Reddy, Achmat Dangor, Essop Patel and Shabbir Banoobhai. South African Indian writers have their own authentic identity they have their own necessity; they seek their own forms and often, through a combination of simplicity and daring, by directness and an unembarrassed handling of feeling, achieve artistic effects of insight and profound disturbance. The black writers (African, coloured and Indian) had to carve their own literary path through a myriad of obstacles: state harassment, academic hegemony over literature, resource constraints, western literary codes, prejudice of critics, racism, etc. The academe (largely white) also arrogantly posited a distorted conception of what literature is, how value should be appropriated and, more specifically, what constitutes South African cultural capital.

The marginalisation of indigenous knowledges and African writers is currently being addressed by the academe, which is transforming from an elite, exclusive institution to embrace all the writings of the land. Pertinent questions that one needs to ask black writers would concern the dynamics and process of writing. Karodia outlined that when she embarked on Other Secrets, she did have a plan, however, her writing style defies description:

I knew the end of the story. I work backwards. However, I don’t
always stick to the end of the story – it changes. In Other Secrets
I did change the end. The story ended much earlier. But then, I
had to go back; I wanted to add more to the story. The original
ending is still in the book, but I went beyond that, further.

Do other writers influence an author’s writing style, and what is the nature of this influence? Ahmed Essop Notes that he was influenced by V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Ruth Jhabvalla and Anita Desai while Ronnie Govender’s repertoire of influence is wide and they include Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, Wole Soyinka, Bertolt Brecht, Rabindranath Tagore, Dambudzo Marechera, R.K.Narayan, Rohinton Mistry and J.M.Coetzee. Karodia’s response to the greatest influence on her as a writer was a stark contrast to Essop and Govender:

There has been no other writer that has had a great influence on
my work or me. I am fairly solitary. It can’t be a person. I read
a lot of diverse stuff. I read everything. I like the more obscure
writers. I don’t focus on one particular writer. I rather not read
South African writers. Not because of any reason – I don’t want
to be influenced. I am moving away from South African settings.
I want to branch out and write things that are also set elsewhere.
Hence my new book is set in Canada. I went to India and wrote
a collection of short stories during the monsoon.

However, she does acknowledge that the influence could be other than a writer. Coming back to South Africa has been one. It was the experience of coming back just before the first democratic elections of 1994. It was then that Other Secrets took off the ground in terms of the writing. Karodia is a hot publishing property, like many black female writers in South Africa due to the marginalisation and exclusion of women’s writings by the academe and the androcentric publishing houses. She has just completed a novel set in Canada. The working title, A long journey home, has to be changed since it sounds like Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey (1999). She confesses that she has used some interesting concepts and techniques. The structure is also quite different from her other novels, she claims:

I wrote in the first person narrative and the rest of the story is told
in the third person. Some of the story is told in the immediate
present, while the rest is in the past. They are not flashbacks. It
is the way the story develops. There is this old woman trying to
figure out what went wrong in her past, what has brought her to
this point in time. Once again, an extremely strong woman. But,
I do have some interesting men in this novel.
My other work is set in a small town in the Karoo (in South
Africa); it is more of a young person’s story. A film crew arrives
in a small town that has not been part of the South African change
after democracy. My other concurrent project is the collection
of short stories that reflect my experiences in India.

Who does a South African Indian writer envisage as her audience in the new democratic South Africa? Karodia maintains that she would like to write for everyone. It is interesting to note that although she refutes the categorisation of her text as feminist, she thinks Other Secrets is especially written for women. She states succinctly that her text mirrors particularly the experiences of South African Indian women, however, it is a story that everybody can get something out of.

1. This article is based on an interview that Rajendra Chetty conducted with Farida Karodia on the occasion of the release of  Other Secrets in July 2000 in her home in Gauteng, South Africa.

Karodia, F. Other Secrets. Johannesburg: Penguin. 2000.

Is Associate Director of Research at ML Sultan Technikon, Durban. His current research project is South African Indian Writings in English. His MA in South African Literature focused on black autobiography and his Ph D provided a genealogical study of South African Literature. Published widely on language policy issues, literature teaching and post colonial writings.

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Is Associate Director of Research at ML Sultan Technikon, Durban. His current research project is South African Indian Writings in English. His MA in South African Literature focused on black autobiography and his Ph D provided a genealogical study of South African Literature. Published widely on language policy issues, literature teaching and post colonial writings.

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