Welcome to Our Hillbrow

by

Phaswane Mpe

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Welcome to Our Hillbrow: Chapter 2  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
If Refentše, “child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow,” were still alive, he might have written the books he wanted to write. These were books of poetry, and they were going to be dedicated to Hillbrow. Refentše had already published one short story, which could have led to more publications.
It's noteworthy that the narrator now calls Refentše both a child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow (instead of just Tiragalong), because it shows that Refentše saw Hillbrow as an important part of his identity. It is also significant that the narrator tells Refentše he would have written a book of poetry if he was alive, because it suggests that writing and being alive are deeply linked for Refentše, showing how important sharing stories was to him before his death.
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Refentše knew that there were not many stories written about Hillbrow, particularly not in languages that could be widely shared across the country—like English—or in languages that he was familiar with, like Sepedi. Refentše found a “mission in this omission” and decided he’d write about Hillbrow himself, first in English and then translated into Sepedi. He had thought that maybe he’d turn his published short story into a longer novel. But his literary ambitions were not stronger than his eventual “conviction” to die by suicide.
That Refentše felt a “conviction” to die by suicide shows how much pain he was experiencing before he died and suggests that guilt, regret, and isolation are very hard feelings to overcome. Refentše’s literary plans were grand, but he wasn’t able to follow through on his desire to write a novel. This suggests that he gave a lot up to die by suicide, again showing how tempting the idea of death was to him.
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Refentše, from the afterlife, is “grimly amused” at how quickly news of his suicide travels through his home village, Tiragalong, and how comfortable everyone is talking about it. One person who really “embellishes” the story of his suicide is Refilwe, an ex-girlfriend of his from Tiragalong. They split up when Refentše discovered that Refilwe had other boyfriends. Refilwe got back in touch five years after Refentše left for university and asked him for a job reference. Refilwe herself just graduated from another university north of Johannesburg (studying English and Sepedi) and was applying for an Assistant Editor position in the city.
This passage introduces the reader to Refilwe, who is immediately linked to Refentše because of their connected past, shared home of origin, and shared love of literature. Refilwe’s penchant for gossip, though, shows that she will be a complicated character, one who makes mistakes and hurts other people. However, her similarity to Refentše—who has shown a capacity for personal growth—suggests that Refilwe might be able to change. This passage again emphasizes the way that storytelling—in the form of gossip—flows through Tiragalong frequently, often with negative consequences (since Refentše does not approve of the way his story is being told).
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Refilwe talked Refentše into writing the reference—even though they had broken up—by reminding him that they’d been in love once. She told him that he knew her very well. Also, she mentioned his recommendation would mean a lot, since he was a highly educated person. Refentše (frustratedly) agreed that this was the case, thinking about how people took uneducated people much less seriously. As it turns out, he did not have to try too hard to write the reference, since Refilwe was an excellent, bright woman. Refentše wrote a meaningful recommendation, attesting to Refilwe’s work ethic and pleasant personality.
Again, the story suggests that Refilwe has many positive qualities, which hints that she might change her bad behavior by the end of the story. Refentše’s frustration with the fact that people with an education are taken more seriously speaks to his ability to acknowledge the injustices within South African society.
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Refilwe got the job, and Refentše was very happy for her. He suggested they meet for a beer to celebrate at a university bar called Sweeny’s. They did, and they enjoyed an afternoon together, and afterwards Refentše went home with Lerato. Everything was very pleasant, but then Refilwe called a few weeks later and invited Refentše to dinner at her flat. She offered to cook for him. Refentše accepted the invitation, even though he was pretty sure that Refilwe now wanted to get back together.
Refentše seems to know Refilwe very well, given that he correctly guesses her intentions when she invites him over. This foreshadows the way that Refentše will have to juggle being both a mentor and a love interest for Refilwe.
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Back when Refilwe first cheated on Refentše, he had been upset enough to leave her. He did forgive her—in that he didn’t want to cause her any pain—but he also judged her for sleeping with other people. However, the narrator reminds Refentše that, later in his life, he found reasons to “rethink his self-righteousness.” This is because Refentše eventually had sex with his friend Sammy’s lover, Bohlale.
The fact that Refentše’s feelings towards Refilwe have changed since he was younger (he used to be mad at her, but he’s since realized that all humans are fallible) shows that the more life experience Refentše has, the more he grows and emotionally matures. Refilwe lacks the same experience as Refentše, and she is not yet on the road to emotional maturity or redemption. Also, importantly, this is the first time the novel mentions that Refentše (just like Lerato) cheated. This proves that the reader did not have all of the information in the previous chapter, which makes a point about coming to conclusions about a person or a situation based on just one incomplete version of a story.
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On that night, Bohlale called Refentše and asked him to come over. She was distraught because Sammy had brought home a woman he’d met at a bar in a seedy part of town, and he even told Bohlale to sleep on the floor. Bohlale confided in Refentše that if she allowed that type of behavior and didn’t confront Sammy, he’d likely do it again. Refentše listened sympathetically. They both agreed that this was not Sammy’s usual behavior—Bohlale even said that the “whore” Sammy was with had bragged about drugging him. But Bohlale was very upset nonetheless.
It is noteworthy that Refentše originally went over to Sammy and Bohlale’s apartment to comfort Bohlale, since it suggests that he didn’t plan on cheating on Lerato. This idea of not having total control over a situation comes back later in the story, when Refentše, from heaven, eventually accepts life’s unpredictability. It’s also important that neither Bohlale nor Refentše blame Sammy (that much) for his bad behavior, which shows that their affair didn’t come out of a place of rage, but vulnerability.
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Refentše sat next to Bohlale, wondering what could have made his friend Sammy go to that part of town, which he didn’t even like. Then Refentše looked into Bohlale’s eyes and felt remarkably close to her because of how hurt she was. Refentše said that he would talk to Sammy and that he was sure Sammy loved Bohlale very much. She began to sob. When he went in to hug her, she hugged him back, and this physical touch sparked a deeper embrace. They felt incredibly attracted to each other and had sex.
Again, Refentše and Bohlale’s connection comes from a place of hurt and empathy, so their actions are not too difficult to understand. This emphasizes the book’s belief that ordinary people can behave in both good and bad ways, and that situations are often more complex and complicated than they first appear.
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Refentše thought of this night when Refilwe invited him to have dinner with her, since he knew “how weak he could be.” He had no desire to betray Lerato. In fact, the more he thought about Refilwe, the more he focused his attention on Lerato. He decided that he’d leave work early on the night he was supposed to go to Refilwe’s apartment—not out of eagerness to see her, but because he wanted to stop home and kiss Lerato first. The narrator reminds Refilwe that these “efforts at fidelity” ended up being useless—not because of Refentše, but because of Lerato and Sammy’s affair. These are the topics—"love, betrayal, seduction, suicide”—that Refentše could have written about if he hadn’t died too early.
Refentše draws on his past experience with Bohlale to assess the situation with Refilwe, which shows that he is capable of personal growth and reflection. The story further emphasizes the complexities of being alive, though, when the narrative stresses how Refentše wasn’t able to predict or control what would happen with Lerato and Sammy. It is also significant that the story again stresses how Refentše could have had more time to write if he had stayed alive, which suggests there is a strong connection between storytelling, processing emotions, and living.
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The narrator reminds Refentše of his weakened relationship with is mother and suggests that this was also a factor in Refentše’s suicide. Refentše and his mother argued about Lerato because Refentše’s mother thought Lerato had drugged Refentše into loving her. Refentše’s mother was also prejudiced against people from Hillbrow, and she considered Lerato a Lekwerekwere (even though Lerato came from a township just north of Johannesburg) and a sexual deviant because she lived in the city. The fact that Refentše could never give his mother any money when he came home—because he still had to pay off his student loans—only made his mother more confident that he was “a victim of the cunning of Hillbrowans.”
It's clear that Refentše’s mother’s prejudices against Lerato are unwarranted, but they have a large impact on Refentše’s wellbeing, since they make him feel isolated. It appears that Refentše’s mother is quick to assume Lerato had bad intentions (simply because Lerato lived in the city), which underscores the intensity of Tiragalong’s distrust of people from Johannesburg. It’s also clear that Refentše’s mother’s biases are based in ignorance: she assumes Lerato is stealing Refentše’s money when, in reality, he is paying back his loans, which again emphasizes how the real culprit (the predatory loan system that forces poorer families into debt) gets to scapegoat innocent parties (Lerato, who just loves Refentše).
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Because of her convictions about Hillbrowans, Refentše couldn’t turn to his mother for comfort when he found out about Lerato and Sammy’s betrayal. He also couldn’t go to his closest friend, since Sammy was one of the people who hurt him. This made suicide start to look appealing. In fact, he began thinking that suicide would give him “relief” from many things: the pressure to succeed, the constant stress of financial worries, the heavy disappointment of so much betrayal in his life—even relief over the guilt he still felt about his affair with Bohlale. He ended up dying by suicide after jumping from his 20-story balcony. The narrator says, “Refentše, welcome to our Hillbrow…”
Again, the story shows that Refentše’s mother’s prejudices have clear repercussions: Refentše’s suicidal thoughts are directly linked to his mother being unable to accept Lerato. This demonstrates the way that unjust biases ripple out and have a variety of destructive consequences. The narrator’s use of the refrain “welcome to our Hillbrow” after Refentše commits suicide shows the evolving use of that phrase—here, it’s meant not as a sarcastic welcome but almost like a sigh, suggesting that life is unavoidably difficult. 
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Refilwe still loved Refentše. She also hadn’t known about his inner struggles and thought he was happy enough. Refentše did look successful, since he was the first person from Tiragalong to graduate with an MA from university, he was a lecturer, and he’d had a story published. When, in Tiragalong, people said cruel things about Refentše after his suicide—like that he didn’t care about his own mother—Refilwe defended him. However, Refilwe’s love for Refentše clouded her judgement and caused her to “retell” the story of his death in her own way.
Refilwe defending Refentše shows how much love she has for him. However, that she “retells” the story of his death foreshadows that she will make up a story to fit her own needs, and it will likely not be kind.
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The people of Tiragalong came up with their own reason for Refentše’s death—they blamed his mother. They said she gave him medicines to break the love potion Lerato had given him, but that these medicines were too strong and ruined his mind. When Refentše’s mother slipped and fell into his grave during his burial, the people of Tiragalong took this as a confirmation that she was a witch. They bound her, poured petrol on her, and burned her to death (an act done often in Tiragalong and known as “necklacing” because of the tires filled will gasoline that were put around the victim’s neck).
The people of Tiragalong’s response to Refentše’s death shows the way that the village handles bad news—they often attribute death or illness to mysticism. This results in Refentše’s mother being blamed and murdered, which demonstrates the difficulty of living in a village that would rather invent stories than get information from outside sources. This also foreshadows the grief and guilt Refentše will feel from heaven, knowing that his mother died as a result of his suicide.
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When Refilwe told the people of Tiragalong that Refentše had simply been “naïve” and had fallen for a woman from Johannesburg, she changed people’s opinions about what happened. In Refilwe’s “rewritten” version, Refentše was tricked not by his mother but by a “loose-thighed Hillbrowan” named Lerato. The people of Tiragalong were only too happy to believe such a scandal. Everyone, Refilwe included, was happy to say terrible things about people from the city.
Again, it is noteworthy that the people of Tiragalong accept a new version of Refentše’s death—not because they’ve gained new facts, but because they welcome a new story from a convincing storyteller (Refilwe). This story is particularly compelling because it supports the biases that the people of the village already have (against people from Hillbrow), not because Refilwe presents any new or realistic information. This demonstrates how prejudices can make people believe stories that support their beliefs, which only serve to reenforce their biases. It is also noteworthy that Refilwe is telling these cruel stories about Lerato, because it shows that she is still an immature character who has not yet examined her own prejudices. Refilwe will later reflect on the way that she told the story of Refentše’s death, and she’ll ultimately come to regret blaming Lerato.
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Refilwe even suggested that Lerato’s father was Nigerian, meaning that Lerato was the daughter of a Lekwerekwere. Refilwe said all sorts of cruel things about migrant Nigerian men in order to further smear Lerato’s name in Tiragalong. By the time Refilwe’s story was done, Refentše’s suicide was just “hard evidence” of the “dangerous power” of immigrant women for the people of Tiragalong. It didn’t matter that Lerato’s father was not Nigerian at all.
Again, Refilwe slanders Lerato in the most forceful way she knows how—by saying that her father is a Nigerian immigrant. This underscores just how deep Refilwe’s (and the people of Tiragalong’s) dislike of immigrants from other African countries is. It is particularly significant—and ironic—that Refilwe’s story acts as “hard evidence” to confirm Tiragalong’s biases against immigrants, since the information Refilwe shares about Lerato isn’t “hard evidence”—in fact, it ends up being false. “Hard evidence,” then, is read as sarcastic, to highlight that Refilwe’s story is the exact opposite.
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Many months later, it would be revealed that Lerato’s father, Piet, was also the father of a beloved boy from Tiragalong, Tshepo. Tshepo was the very first Tiragalong child to study at the University of Witwatersrand, and he was a role model for Refentše (and a bit of a hero in the village). Tshepo was struck by lightning and killed years ago. His neighbor, an old woman, was accused of witchcraft and “necklaced” to death in Tiragalong. The people of the village did not know that Piet, who died when Tshepo was four years old, also had another family.
That Lerato has the same father as a beloved boy from Tiragalong shows just how wrong the people of Tiragalong are when they call her a “Lekwerekwere.” This only further emphasizes the power of ignorance and prejudice, and how willing people are to believe stories that match up with their biases. Tshepo’s neighbor being put to death for Tshepo’s death by lightning again emphasizes the village’s desire to find a culprit when something bad or unpredictable happens, rather than admit to life’s unpredictability.
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The village enjoyed gossiping with the newfound information Refilwe had given them. There was one person, though, who knew just how false all of these stories were: Lerato herself. She was heartbroken after Refentše’s death. Lerato, too, found suicide “seductive” in the aftermath of Refentše’s death.
Lerato dying by suicide because of the cruel and false accusations coming from Refilwe again shows how destructive prejudice can be.
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The narrator tells Refentše that, from heaven, he gets to have a bit of hindsight and reflection. Refentše sits in heaven and sees that his choices resulted in the death of two people: his mother, and Lerato. The narrator calls Refentše a “killer.” Heaven also lets Refentše see Sammy’s mind deteriorate from guilt and sadness. Refentše sees from heaven that all of this suffering could have been avoided if he had forgiven Lerato and tried to understand the reasons for her infidelity.
Refentše undergoes extensive growth from heaven, since he is able to sit and reflect on everything that has happened in his life. The fact that he realizes he might not have committed suicide if he’d spoken to Lerato about her affair suggests that open communication is a healing way of processing pain and trauma. Refentše’s regret emphasizes his newfound understanding of the situation and suggests that he can now behave differently in heaven.
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If Refentše had tried to talk to Lerato after she had sex with Sammy, he would have realized that her reasons for cheating were very similar to the reasons Refentše felt when he had sex with Bohlale. In fact, he would have forgiven her and kissed her, simply saying, “such is the way of heart and flesh.” He would have understood that Lerato felt ignored and overlooked, just like Bohlale, and that Sammy felt sorry, just like Refentše.
Again, Refentše realizes—from heaven—that he could have empathized with Lerato after he found her in bed with Sammy, and that this would have been the more productive way of handling the situation. It is very tender and tragic that he might have just kissed Lerato on the head and said something that showed he understood her, because it highlights the extent of his regret and of his growth. Refentše’s ability to understand Lerato’s feelings by pulling from his own experience shows how he is capable of becoming a better person by processing his feelings.
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The day that Sammy and Lerato had their affair, Refentše was depressed. He hadn’t eaten the food that Lerato prepared him, which disappointed her. She called Sammy, worried about Refentše’s increasing loss of appetite for food, love, and even life. Sammy and Lerato did “exactly” what Refentše and Bohlale did—bonded through sadness and sympathy. But when Refentše found Sammy and Lerato together, his imagination ran wild, and he thought that they’d been sneaking around behind his back for months. This thought was too much for him to bear.
Lerato is in the dark about what Refentše is feeling, which leaves her confused and lonely. This suggests that if Refentše had confided in Lerato about his guilt, he wouldn’t have acted the way he did, and Lerato wouldn’t have been worried enough to call Sammy. All of this signifies how Refentše’s guilt overcame his ability to communicate with his girlfriend—to devastating ends. The novel also suggests that it is unfortunate Refentše couldn’t recognize Lerato’s behavior as similar to the night he had with Bohlale, since he had the tools he needed to understand her, he just didn’t use them.
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The difference between Refentše and Bohlale’s affair and Sammy and Lerato’s was that Sammy never found out Bohlale cheated on him. Sammy kept going out and getting drunk, since he didn’t see how his behavior was affecting his girlfriend. One night, he was beat up, robbed, and stabbed. Refentše found him when he happened to hear Sammy’s screams and had rushed him to the hospital. When Sammy woke up in the hospital, he had immediately asked for Bohlale.
The story suggests that Sammy actually would have benefited from finding about Bohlale and Refentše sleeping together, because it would have jolted him into behaving better. Yet, it is meaningful that he asks for Bohlale as soon as he wakes up in the hospital, since it suggests he still loves her. It’s telling that he needed to be in a life-or-death situation to finally express how he felt about his partner, rather than showing her his love under normal circumstances. This further extends the idea that decent people can make mistakes if they do not have enough time, space, or motivation for self-reflection.
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Sammy asking for Bohlale should have saved Sammy and Bohlale’s relationship. When Refentše came home from the hospital, he told Bohlale that Sammy had asked for her, and she broke down in sobs. She admitted that she’d been ready to leave Sammy that morning, but now she had proof that he loved her.
Again, though it’s moving that Sammy asked for Bohlale in the hospital, the fact that Bohlale was ready to leave him shows that he was not reflecting on the good in his life until he was in a life-or-death situation.
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Late that night, Bohlale called Refentše in tears, telling him that they had to confess and apologize to Sammy. Refentše was not as convinced—he said that Sammy was in a bad state at the hospital and that they wouldn’t want to shock him. Bohlale disagreed, her guilt weighing on her, and she said that she was going to tell Sammy as soon as possible. Refentše nervously spent the rest of the night reading. The next day, Bohlale made her way to the hospital and was hit and killed by a speeding, stolen car. Refentše never did tell Sammy about the affair, figuring that his friend had enough grief to deal with. Refentše’s secret remained “locked in his heart,” eating away at his conscience.
Refentše being eaten up by guilt and grief shows how difficult it is to move on from something if you feel like you’ve done the wrong thing but have no way to make up for it. The story suggests that if Refentše had agreed with Bohlale about telling Sammy, everyone’s fate might have been different. The hit-and-run, a symbol for the unpredictability of life, may not have happened, simply because Bohlale might have been in less of a rush to get to the hospital. Refentše made a grave mistake, but this is part of the story’s point—that people do mess up in life, and that they still deserve forgiveness.
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To find an outlet for this grief and guilt, Refentše started to write the short story about Hillbrow. This is the story that ended up getting published. It is about an HIV-positive woman from Tiragalong who is shunned by the village because of her illness. The people of Tiragalong say (like they would in real life) that the woman effectively killed herself by sleeping with a Lekwerekwere. Refentše wrote how “Tiragalong danced because its xenophobia—its fear of and hatred for both black non-South Africans and Johannesburgers—was vindicated.”
Refentše channeling his grief into a story is in line with his character’s behavior, and it underscores the importance of literature and storytelling in this novel. He chooses an ostracized woman as his protagonist because he wants to challenge people’s assumptions and prejudices, which demonstrates his strong desire to change people’s minds in Tiragalong and beyond. By holding up a mirror to Tiragalong—by writing how xenophobic they are, and how they even take pleasure in their hatred by “dancing”—Refentše shows that he believes books are a powerful tool against prejudice and bias.
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Some people who read Refentše’s story felt for the protagonist, which surprised him (they were the “exceptions”). These people seemed to sympathize with her, saying that she was just trying to survive. These people also noted the hypocrisy of people from Tiragalong, since AIDS was very much present there, too, even if they were in denial about it.
That some people do empathize with Refentše’s protagonist, even if they are they “exceptions,” shows that his story worked the way he wanted it to. This is also foreshadowing that a very significant character (Refilwe) will be one of the people influenced into changing their behavior because of the story, again suggesting that books and stories, when told with good intentions, can combat unjust prejudices.
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The protagonist of Refentše’s story does not die by suicide. She thinks she will not go back to Tiragalong anymore, because the cruelty of the townspeople is too much, but she finds it difficult to avoid home. She decides to grapple with all of her grief through storytelling, and she writes a novel about Hillbrow, the AIDS epidemic, and prejudice.
This is where the novel gets very meta: Refentše has a character in his own story write a story about Hillbrow, prejudice, and AIDS. This only further underscores the way that the larger novel considers the potential power of storytelling to be extremely potent.
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Refentše works into his story, though, that it’s a “big mistake” for this woman to write her book in Sepedi. When publishers review it, they call her “vulgar.” This is because she called things like “shit” and “genitalia” their correct Sepedi name, but the publishers said this was crass, even though the same word in English or Afrikaans would have been socially acceptable. In Refentše’s story—as in Refentše’s life—publishers don’t take a chance on languages other than the ones deemed safe by the market or by people that purchase educational texts. Writing in this traditional South African language is too “dangerous.”
It is very important that Refentše writes about his protagonist facing prejudice for writing in a South African language rather than a language with European origins (like English or Afrikaans, which emerged with the influence of Dutch colonizers in South Africa). This shows a clear double standard in the publishing world of South Africa, which speaks to the long-lasting legacy of colonization and Apartheid. It also highlights why Refentše writes his story in English rather than Sepedi—he knew it was the only way to get it printed. It is possible to infer, because of the meta nature of this story, that Phaswane Mpe also felt he had to write Welcome to Our Hillbrow in English for this same reason.
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The story that the woman in Refentše’s story writes is “buried,” and she is devastated. She begins to physically deteriorate, losing lots of weight. People say to her face that they are concerned for her, but she knows they would prefer if she faded away, since she “dared” to criticize the nation’s prejudices. Refentše, unsurprisingly, found kinship with his protagonist because she represents many of the anxieties that he feels about Hillbrow, Tiragalong, South Africa, and the world.
Refentše writes into existence a character that shares many of the anxieties that he has, and this showcases the usefulness of literature when it comes to processing emotions. The prejudices that Refentše’s protagonist faces mirror all of the biases that Refentše himself tried to convince people against in his life. The protagonists’ fate also foreshadows another key character’s future, and the difficulties she will face against Tiragalong’s prejudices.
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Had Refentše actually written the full-length novel, he probably would have had time to do even more reflection, and he may not have decided to die by suicide. This would have prevented his mother’s death and Lerato’s suicide. He might have told Sammy the truth about him and Bohlale. Sammy, meanwhile, deranged from sorrow, also began telling people in Tiragalong how terrible Lerato was. He started sounding like everyone else from the village: full of prejudice.
The story makes the case that Refentše’s link to life is also a link to literature and storytelling, which is why storytelling could have saved his life if he’d let it. It is significant that a benevolent character like Sammy has to lose his grip on reality in order to become prejudiced, since this implies that people who are prejudiced might not have a full grip on reality.
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Refentše knew he would never be able to write a story that held all of his feelings, though. This is because every moment that he was alive, he experienced new things and thus thought differently about the world around him. This didn’t upset him—if anything, it made him intrigued. But his devastation about the affair he imagined between Sammy and Lerato was too great to think clearly. And so Refentše left the world through the window.
Refentše is clearly a character who cherished being alive, feeling complicated emotions, and having new experiences. His overwhelming devastation and sense of isolation when he thought Lerato was cheating on him was stronger than his will to live, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t care about life. His only regret was that he wouldn’t be able to put every feeling in a story, because his feelings were so complicated and everchanging.
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