Speaking with a Forked Tongue: Marlene Van Niekerk’s “Labour” as an Examination of Black Labour and White Dis-ease in Suburban South Africa

  • M West


In this essay, I explore Marlene van Niekerk’s short story “Labour” in the light of deconstructionist strategies that expose the reification of whiteness, and as a narrative that reveals the crises of whiteness and paradoxes upon which it is built. Van Niekerk traces the manifestations of a particular kind of suburban insularity among white South Africans, and in her employment of layers of self-ironization, critiques her own duplicity in resisting and perpetuating normative western whiteness inscribed in social narratives. I examine the narrator’s encounters with coloured and black domestic labourers and their white employers. Tracing the shifts in perspective from first to third person throughout the narrative, I argue that it is during instances in which the narrator feels compromised and/or complicit in narratives of suburban ‘madamhood’ that she resorts to the third person, as if watching herself from a distance acting out a part she does not want to play. Furthermore, I show that Van Niekerk interrogates language and the way in which axioms and truisms are used to shore up white hegemony, and to render invisible the real place of power. What she resists and subverts is the sense that middle class, matronly whiteness carries of its legitimacy, which is reinforced by a concomitant sense of normative neutrality. She accomplishes this in what may be read as a queering of the dynamics, which emerges significantly in her treatment of the central image in the text: a pair of fork-tongued snakes, the multi-layered symbolism of which exposes the paradoxes upon which whiteness and heterosexual normativity are premised.



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eISSN: 2159-9130
print ISSN: 1013-929X