Maverick Citizen


Notes from the Body — Health, Illness, Trauma

Notes from the Body — Health, Illness, Trauma

‘Notes from the Body: Health, Illness, Trauma’ is a collection of poems and essays that ‘(re)turn attention to the body as that through which so much of our humanness is experienced, mediated, enjoyed, suffered, understood and expressed’. It is edited by Duncan Brown, Kobus Moolman and Nkosinathi Sithole and is published by UKZN Press.


This intimate body of work changes the reader – me and now you. It blurs the lines of where I end, and you begin. This book of the body is a map of life held in hands – yours and mine; readers’ and writers’ – which has etched into our palms heart-lines and head-lines. The writers gathered in these pages made me experience the entwined lines of thought and feeling that we carry, marked both on and within our bodies. “Our bodies record things on totally other levels,” writes Gaireyah Fredericks in “Lights Out!” “And the body never forgets.”

Thank you for opening the doors of your bodies – the beginning and end of each of our worlds – and allowing me, your reader, to experience your vulnerability, fear, suffering, rage, hope, and survival. Each piece, each event described, has pierced, entered, inhabited, unmade, and then made me anew.

This body-writing, this hard-won body-knowledge, dismantles the barrier between the “I” that thinks and the “me” that feels, loves, believes, suffers. Illness, pain, trauma undo the border between the duality of thought and feeling into which we are conditioned – a split state that Nkosinathi Sithole troubles in his exploration of illness and recovery in “One Body, Different Minds”:

I also cannot deny that the TB treatment I undertook was responsible for my recovery. But I believe that without the supernatural intervention of my ancestors… I would not have recovered.

Just as writing can explore the complexities of the mind and how our minds process pain and trauma, writing is also the passport that takes us through the checkpoints set up between body and mind. These writers, all of whom have made this journey, have returned with reports, accounts, notes – often in unfamiliar tongues and rhythms – from the place where those who suffer are exiled. As Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor:

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

This writing, these testimonies and self-witness accounts from the “night-side” of life, are acts of resistance that undo the silencing tyranny of pain and fear. By unveiling their/our bodies, our/their resilience, these writers provide solace and shelter to those of us who cannot find the language to express the fragility of our ephemeral bodies. A fragility that is always experienced in extremis and alone, even in a pandemic in which thousands died and hundreds of thousands were ill.

A sense of frailty and estrangement – what we might call a sense of our mortality – is the memento that people bring back when they return to the land of the well. In “The Darkness of Covid-Death”, Samuel Njenga writes that after his six weeks in ICU:

I have found myself wondering what happened to Lazarus, who was raised from the dead in the Bible account. And maybe the greater miracle was the untold story of how he was reintegrated back into himself and to his community.

It is not easy to come back to life, and to re-join a community – the not-sick – that does not (yet) know the frailty and the radical otherness of a body that pain and illness have done their utmost to annihilate. This insight that the sick, the injured and the traumatised must make their way Lazarus-like back into health and community, from a place whose proportions we do not know, struck me as the heart of the uncanniness of the experiences of rupture and return described in this collection.

Pain, as Elaine Scarry tells us in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, “destroys a person’s self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe” (1985: 35).

When we are well our bodies are, for the most part, invisible to us. Too often we regard them simply as the instruments of our existence – vehicles to get us from A to B or hotels of sorts where thought – the “I” of the self – resides and imagines itself to be head of the household. Until, of course, we are not well. Until we feel the bullets that pierced Vonani Bila, and then every jolt over every pothole as he is taken to one hospital and then another and, through miracles of care and kindnesses, lives to tell the tale of his survival in “Staring Death in the Eye: Revisiting the Tribulations and Joys of Hospitalisation in Post-apartheid South Africa”.

His injured body and the shambolic nature of his care conjure South Africa’s damaged body-politic. Pain – that seemingly most personal of experiences – is political. The pain endured by Bila, a bullet-shattered man, and the many patients he meets in his epic journey to eventual recovery, is made so much worse by a careless and negligent state, even as individual doctors and nurses tend caringly to him with the sparsest of means.


Notes from the Body – the pain-chopped word-fragments of illness, the slip-slide of remembering-forgetting that is the dementing legacy of trauma, the flashes of jubilance that come from one body’s movement, another’s love-making, and the ambiguity felt about surviving – allows the reader to know their own body. By pushing the boundaries of form, these writers have found ways to assemble, at least in part, what has been dismembered. Writing of the abyss they have traversed is not a task for the faint-hearted, as Kobus Moolman knows in “Theft”:

How far down into the night can my trembling hand reach? He asked
out loud.

When my hand scrabbles around in there. Arthritic and sightless. What
hope does it have of finding the bottom?

Or of ever coming back into the light?

But the poet does come back, all the writers do come back into the light, and their writing, even the most harrowing accounts, is an illumination. Each piece gives us a compass, an astrolabe, lines of longitude and latitude, the instruments needed to word-map the darkness of living with the immanence of death. Of how our hearts break because we both know and don’t know that we lose when we lose those we love, even our reluctantly loved selves, as Antjie Krog writes in “it’s when everything seems to be falling apart”,

in this moment you are so near
I feel your shirt pocket against my cheek
and how catastrophes
crash against our artery walls

This poem makes so viscerally clear that it is each other’s bodies that we love and that we want with us. Those lines made time collapse. They made me cry because recently, so unbearably recently, my sister, whom I loved and who loved me and in whom my memories resided, died. With no warning an aneurysm went off in her brain, ripping her from all of us who love her. This poem brought the hair-trigger fragility of life-death back. It made my skin hurt as it had done when my sister’s chest rose and then fell for the last time, and I understood that the death of a beloved is an amputation of part of oneself. That is why “one makes of death a metaphor/ and tries to acknowledge grief as a friend”.

Grief, like illness, like mental and physical pain, undoes the Cartesian divide between mind – cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am – and the unruly partisan feeling body. Sexual abuse and trauma seem to blow up the bridge of dialogue that holds body and mind together. The damage done by sexual abuse of a young child is almost impossible to measure, in part because of the problem of language. How does one speak the unspeakable? That is one question. The other is the hostile disbelief directed at the child who tells the tale of her devastation – her own unbelievable truth as Hélène Smit tried to in “Architeuthis”:

One day, my teacher, Sister Winifred, visits while my mother is out… I talk to her. My mother comes back. They talk. I hear her telling Sister Winifred that I make up stories. Katriena stands at the kitchen window. She takes off her glasses and wipes her tears.

In this situation with the disbelieving mother, the teacher-nun, the desperate child, and the witness, Katriena, the child’s weeping caregiver who, like us, is full of empathy but does not or cannot intervene, the asymmetry of power is chillingly apparent. Smit’s text, like Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’ and Gaireyah Fredericks’, is broken up, broken apart, as she was as a child. As De Villiers writes in her magisterial poem “Finding the Words in Ten Movements”: “A hole opened up in me and all the words flowed out on a tide of tears”. What else could happen if, as Judith L Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror:

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.

The aerial bombardment of fear, terror, silence and the rage directed later by the victims of these assaults towards those who, out of fear, apathy, negligence, or a vicarious voyeuristic cruelty, stood by and watched and did nothing. Doing nothing. Not saving, not stopping, not believing, not caring while a child is being raped or beaten. There is no escape from that subjugated body except the flight from the self that is disassociation. That splitting wreaks the lifelong havoc that plays out in the body, and which is recorded with such broken eloquence in these pages.

“What did my mother see?” demands Fredericks because, like Smit, hers was a mother who did nothing. Who would not see, would not believe, did not intervene, did not help. They were the un-innocent bystanders, and the discomfort in my own body as I write this – the memory of occasions where I saw and did nothing, where I disregarded the pain of others – makes me hot and uncomfortable.

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator,” Herman reminds us in Trauma and Recovery: “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

And yet these writers have persisted – archaeologists of the self, going back into the past to retrieve the shards of memory that continue to wound them in the present. Returning like detectives to the scenes of the crimes where memories – the evidence – were absorbed into the body only to manifest in the complex and debilitating symptoms of sexual trauma.

These symptoms are the kinds of language, unique to each unwilling speaker, that grow out of the intentional erasure of a young girl when the appropriation of her body made thinking an impossibility because no one would see. No one would believe. If one is prohibited from saying the unspeakable, how then is one meant to think it?

These questions and how one writes a body and a memory that has never been experienced as whole, how one writes a body reduced to and used as a hole, has been central to my own work, and I have wrestled with the body-memories of my own and with those of the women who have honoured me by telling me their stories. By re-making [‘making up’ has the unfortunate, and I assume unintended, suggestion of ‘fabrication’] their stories so that they could be told.

And so I was transfixed by these lines in Bronwyn Law-Viljoen’s “Notes from an Archive of the Body in Movement”:

I must learn to transmit force through the body. The athlete repeats and repeats an action, until action, in the most accomplished of athletes, seems to be thought itself… The body itself must think.

I marvelled at the wonderful “thought itself” body of an athlete This, I thought, illuminates how movement is bedded down. How it goes from conscious to unconscious action. How the body, full of knowing, becomes thought itself. I turned back to the harrowing experiences of incest that Fredericks describes in “Lights Out!”: “by night, the monster rose and killed me over and over again”; the child of which it was said that she had only been “looking for attention”.

I flipped back to Smit’s shattered prose-poem (I don’t know what to call the many invented forms in this collection) and to De Villiers’s verse. In them I saw how the body learns and unlearns itself. How it speaks itself even when a girl-child’s interiority has been seized and occupied by the enemy, who is all too often a person the child loves or desperately needs to love.

What the juxtaposition of an athlete and of the abuse of the girls illuminated for me is that experience is bedded down in the body. It is only later that the symptoms – the speed of the runner, the power of the boxer, the migraines of the adult that the abused child grew into – which are experienced entirely somatically, can be translated, as these writers have done, into words that surface the way in which bodies are taught to remember and to forget. These are bodies in dialogue with the mind, soma sharing its wisdom with psyche.

“The body itself must think”, writes Law-Viljoen. And bodies do think in the most complex of ways, just as the mind feels. I did realisewish, reading these pieces and writing this foreword, that what is missing in English and in all the languages I know is a word for thought-feeling – or perhaps it is feeling-thought. A crisp clear word that describes exactly what so many pieces have written towards – thoughtfeeling and feelingthought.

“Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it,” writes Scarry. And this is true – our capacity for speech is reduced to cries and moans when we are in pain. Or to silence. And yet language does return. It can be coaxed out of its hiding place and freighted with the task of bringing pain, which casts the body out of community, back into the fold of human experiences.

Pain resists relation and connectedness. The person in pain is isolated from others – sure only of the feeling that suffering is a full-time occupation. One is cast out by pain, cast aside. The power of language, like a loving touch, is that it creates connection. It is through writing (and reading) that we are able to see through the eyes of others, to feel with them.

That language is always an approximation of a state from which it was banished is evident in the fragmentation of form in many of these aptly named notes. The gaps are as important as the text – they take us to the brink of non-language and allow us to see into pain, that other country without language. These fragments – constellations of words that illuminate an otherwise dark terra incognita – teach us about the human capacity for word-making.

There are certain observations that can be made, but the doctor’s notes in a patient’s file, say, go nowhere near capturing the experience of a sick person. Without the voice what happens to the body of another is inaccessible. All too often the human voice calling our attention to suffering is the only way the experience of a malady, even if it is detected by an X-ray or a scan or night terrors, can be conveyed from one person to another.

This is in part because the time of the body, especially the body in pain, and the time of clocks, by which the rest of the un-suffering go about their business, is not the same. One of the most striking aspects of this collection is how these notes convey the radically other experiences of the time of illness, and trauma.

Time, we are told, is a great healer, but I do not believe that. Not after reading these texts. Things happen over time, that is true. Experiences are layered into the body and covered up, but they also remain outside of time. Unless they are written, as these Notes from the Body have been. The difficulty of this time, the impossibility of what needed to be said, and the generosity of the gift of writing it, made me think of Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins. In that epic of suffering and silence, she writes:

“Time is as necessary for remembering as it is for forgetting. Even the smallest embrace of pain needs time larger than a pause; the greatest pause requires an eternity, the greatest hurt a lifetime. A lifetime is longer than eternity: an eternity can exist without human presence.” DM

Dr Margie Orford is an internationally acclaimed writer and award-winning journalist. Her Clare Hart crime novels have been widely translated. She has also written a number of children’s books and several works of nonfiction, and is a member of the executive board of PEN International and President Emerita of PEN South Africa.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options