“A Party for the Colonel” by F. T. Kola
Issue #200 • December 25, 2014
F.T. Kola was born in South Africa, grew up in Australia and lived in London thereafter. She is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Texas, Austin, where she is a Michener Fellow in Fiction. This is her first published story.
All evening, groups of white people came up to shake the Colonel’s hand and to say sweet things to his wife. The Colonel was the nickname his son had given him, though he had never been in the military. It was due instead to his bearing, which was splendid. The Colonel exhibited no anxiety at being admired. Not even in the grand, rose-colored ballroom of the Johannesburg La Fontaine, a hotel that a man of his race—Indian, as he and his wife’s identity documents declared—could not normally enter as a guest. But the Colonel’s wife was uncomfortable. Whenever, from within the room of round tables with their peach tablecloths and bouquets of flowers, a new and unknown lady approached her and told her she must be so proud, she could barely form the words to respond. The Colonel’s wife was a stout woman, as sweet and cautious as a milking cow, with a face permanently crumpled into pre-emptive embarrassment. She had never been around so many white people in her own country before. She had, as a girl, patched together the facts of the Apartheid laws she lived under and her own meager education to form the idea that every single one of them hated her, and so the evening for her proceeded as a series of mounting terrors. Each sparkling smile and jewel-laden hand on her shoulder filled her with panic. She sat, traumatized and still, holding her toddler grandson in her lap like a shield, offering mute smiles to anyone who spoke to her.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
The seed of this story was actually a prompt given to a class I was in by Alexander Chee, which was to write a fictionalized version of an anecdote your parents tell about you as a child. In my case, my parents often told a story about how, when I was a toddler in South Africa, we went to a Christmas pantomime at my aunt’s high school, which was a mostly white school, though we are not white. My grandfather had only managed to enroll my aunt there because he could pay the fees. At this time my father and mother, unlike my grandfather, were very active in the struggle against Apartheid and would frequently take me with them to rallies and protests. When the audience began clapping at the end of the play, I had a kind of Pavlov’s dog response and raised my fist in the air and shouted Amandla!, because it was what I was used to. I can’t imagine how quickly my family hightailed it out of that room. The key to why this story is told is because of the tension between my father and my grandfather. My father was a young activist, my grandfather trying to blend into a world in which he would never belong, and I had inadvertently revealed his not belonging. So the Colonel, who embodies that place in the world, was the central character for me and I began by writing various scenes of him and his wife getting ready for the party, until I figured out it was easier just to place them there from the start.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
My memory of writing is it subsumed by the memories of revising it, which I did multiple times, including with Hannah’s incredible guidance as an editor. I think revising was difficult, not only to ensure that the story felt true to the time and place (which I hope I have done), but also because the Colonel’s wife is such a silent yet present character, so that every small adjustment in what she sees felt as though it had the power to change the story immensely. Revising it felt like an ongoing series of tiny yet important calibrations.
Most Americans think of South Africa in terms of black and white. But in “A Party for the Colonel,” you explore the nuances of race under Apartheid, and how it included Indians, Malays and people from many other ethnic backgrounds. Can you talk a bit about this, and what drew you to the subject?
I really wanted to show, in this story, how Apartheid was a structure that could simultaneously exploit and repress you and allow you to exploit others and participate in their repression. The white/non-white divide – literally separation – was the essential core of Apartheid, but all non-whites existed in a kind of hierarchy. If you were Indian, for example, that meant you suffered immensely from legally being considered an inferior race, and by having virtually every element of your life controlled and restricted, but it also meant that there were others ‘below’ you, particularly black South Africans. It meant, for example, you were able to employ black South Africans as domestic workers and pay them very little, just one way of participating in their subjugation. That element of Apartheid, that it not only separated people by race via law and through geography (as with the forced removals), but also that it set up hierarchical structures based on race, always seemed like one of its most pernicious elements to me. I wanted the Colonel and his wife both to suffer terribly under Apartheid, but also to be somewhat unconscious of the suffering of those whose oppression they were able to participate in to some extent, or even to justify it in the case of the Colonel. It felt real to me that the Colonel’s wife, distressed though she is, would be blind to the experience of Eunice, and of the waiters, and that they would truly only be visible to her in that last moment. At the same time, people of all races (including many prominent Indian South Africans) were united in fighting against Apartheid, as in the case of Mohammed’s character, and that often resulted in terrible personal loss.
Although the story follows three generations of men (the Colonel, Mohammed and Riyaz) each responding to their lives under Apartheid in different ways, the point of view is set firmly with the Colonel’s wife, and her discomfort and grief as she comes to understand the loss of her son. Why did you choose to focus on her in this story?
She seemed like a natural observer to me, the one character who could intimately access the lives of all these three family members, especially since there are barriers of psychology and place between the three of them. She has the wisdom of an observer, I hope, and so via her we’re able to see the contrast between the Colonel and Mohammed in particular: the former trying to work within the system so that it will accept him and failing, the latter fighting openly against it. I also just found her the most sympathetic and attractive character to stay close to – her grief and discomfort (which the Colonel doesn’t feel), I think, was something I felt I could work within and explore the contours of.
Near the end of the story, a portrait of the Colonel is revealed. What did you mean to convey in that moment? Do you think it makes him realize that no matter how much money he makes, these people don’t really “see” him?
Yes. I wanted that to be a moment for him in which he sees that no matter how rich he is, he is not going to be able to triumph over this system through such means. The narratives of race that Apartheid created are too powerful; he can’t dismantle them by working within the system’s rules. It’s a painful moment for him, for sure.
The final moment in “A Party for the Colonel” focuses on a riot and fire at the John Vorster Square prison. Did this event really happen, and if so, how did it change things in the fight against Apartheid? Also, in your mind, was Mohammed at that prison? And is he now dead?
John Vorster Square was a notorious place of detention without trial, torture and interrogation but the riot and fire, unlike the Soweto Uprising (hinted at) in story, is something that didn’t actually happen. I was interested in setting up the contrast between this great chaos occurring outside, perhaps a few blocks away, and the quiet quakes of emotion and realization happening inside the ballroom, simultaneously. The visual image of John Vorster Square in flames, at the same time as the Colonel is looking at his own much anticipated and dismal portrait, also represented for me the different paths of these two men; Mohammed as part of the great, powerful 1970s swell of anti-Apartheid activism that will ultimately undo the whole thing, and the Colonel, whose change is only interior. That difference is not just historical, but is also a gulf between father and son and how they choose to manage the world, which I was interested in just at the level of a family dynamic.
What did happen in John Vorster, which I imagine happened to Mohammed, is that many detainees died in detention while being held by the security police, and the official explanations of their death frequently sounded absurd – that they slipped on a piece of soap, for example, or that they fell from a window. There is a stunning, often-cited poem by Chris van Wyk called “In Detention” that explores these official explanations, and also an incredible Google Cultural Institute and South African History Archive online exhibit that lets you walk through John Vorster and hear the personal accounts of surviving detainees, activists and security police, for anyone who is interested in knowing more. Both helped me to write this.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to take the advice below to heart, and to write as many short stories as I can. A few are set in South Africa, and a few in Australia where I grew up, including one about a coven of elderly immigrant witches who live in the outback.
This is your first published short story. How does it feel to have your fiction out in the world?
It feels scary, and thrilling! I’m very excited to be part of One Story, which I am a huge fan of.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
I just started the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin, and Elizabeth McCracken said on the first day of our first fiction workshop that writing a story gives you the opportunity to think the most interesting thoughts that you can, and that ambition is “everything” in a story, but that “you can’t be ambitious and flawless”. That gave me such a sense of freedom and excitement – that you can take big risks, go virtually anywhere, and not worry (too much!) about being perfect.
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