A common claim of the disability culture movement is that disability is an identity that cuts across all other lines and categories of humankind, including the great triad of race, class, and gender. Another claim is that disability raises a host of issues around the world.
Although Tilling the Hard Soil: Poetry, Prose, and Art by South African Writers with Disabilities does not state that supporting these claims is one of its goals, it nevertheless provides ample evidence to do so. In this anthology, editor Kobus Moolman, a gifted and well-published poet, has collected poetry and prose, memoir and fiction as well as visual art from twenty-two disabled South Africans.
The book begins with the question, "What does it mean to be a disabled man or woman in South Africa today?" Given the country's long history of exclusion and horrendous oppression as well as its stunning transformation to a democratic society less than two decades ago, how does embodying one or more of the differences of disability inflect one's sense of self, one's relationship to community, one's opportunities in the world? Tilling the Hard Soil recognizes that there is no single answer to those questions; instead, it offers a mosaic of voices that are complex, layered, and contingent.
That mosaic effect is purposeful; Moolman gathered work from writers with a wide variety of experiences, cultural backgrounds, and geographic locations, from the townships to white middle-class suburbs. The book's authors write from a variety of positions on a disability identity spectrum as well, from a just-dawning awareness of alternative perspectives on disability to a full-bore commitment to disability culture. Though mobility impairments are predominant among the authors, a significant variety of other disability conditions are represented among the authors, including sensory and mental disabilities.
The result is a remarkable picture of what it means to be disabled in contemporary South Africa. Though the book is not differentiated into sections, there is a discernible progression to the pieces included. The first portion of the book deals with early disability experiences, including childhood experiences of growing up disabled and pieces that address the onset of acquired disabilities. From there, Tilling moves to a cluster of pieces that discuss encounters with health care institutions and the world of treatment. Other selections delve into a variety of social and political issues, including poverty, political injustice, and the alarming prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
The most powerful reason for a lack of clearly defined sections is that disability is ultimately uncontainable; it touches, perhaps even structures, every area of human experience. Illustrating one aspect of disability experience inevitably sheds light not only on other aspects of disability experience but on the larger social and cultural realm.
Take for example the way disability complicates race. In "The Final Operation," William Zulu describes the run-up to a spinal surgery that left him paralyzed. The doctors gathered around his hospital bed, talking and tracing lines on x-ray films. "Though I strained to grasp what they were saying I couldn't understand the medical jargon, except for a few disjointed words and phrases," Zulu writes [page reference]."The new, stern-faced ward sister translated for me, saying that the doctors felt that it was time to operate on my back and therefore I must tell my guardian to sign the consent form. They would remove the uncomfortable pelvic traction, and my problems would all be over. When I asked her for details of the operation she cut me short, saying: 'The doctors know what they are doing, William.' I watched the doctors troop off to the next bed, leaving me with many unanswered questions" (11). So far this is consistent with innumerable reports of disabled people's encounters with the medical model. But the scene is richly complicated when we realize that the doctors are white, William is black, and this is apartheid South Africa, in which William's uncle has to sign the consent form with a thumbprint and a part of William's pre-op preparation is to lick his "lucky powder" before the nil-per-mouth (nothing by mouth) sign goes up over his bed.
Tilling the Hard Soil is full of these sorts of subtle revelations — about social organization and activities in the townships, about similarities and differences between experiences of black and white disabled people, about the value of disability community in the face of multiple oppressions, about the ways that disability could both trump and exacerbate other social strictures. For example, Mandla Mabila describes in his piece how he and a friend could sneak into the colored township and not get beaten up because of Mandla's obvious physical impairment; yet at the same time, even the limited opportunities afforded black people under apartheid were routinely denied to Mandla and his fellow disabled people.
An important theme in the book deals with love and sex. In the poem "Matchgirl," filmmaker and writer Shelley Barry considers both the power and the limits of romantic love:
Searching for pieces of fire
Flames turn to smoke
Again and again
Her feet scratch the surface
Looking for some corridor to him
He holds out dead flowers —
His bouquet of truth
No utterance from him
Will turn his mouth into a flame
Where she can bake her heart.
Tilling the Hard Soil is not simply a collection of pathographies. The perspectives of people with disabilities certainly inform the book, but a significant proportion of the pieces are, like "Matchgirl," not "about disability" in any explicit way. It is an important sign of growing maturity when the cultural production of a community moves beyond an overwhelming preoccupation with its difference to attention to the joys, sorrows, and nuances of a complex and weighty world. In Tilling the Hard Soil: Poetry, Prose, and Art by South African Writers with Disabilities, Kobus Moolman has assembled a compelling mosaic that offers one set of answers, oblique as well as straightforward, to the question of what it means to be disabled in South Africa.