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All of us use our minds to write. Have you ever wondered what it is, this mind that we employ with such abandon in our stories?

I recently did a six-week MOOC course on ‘What is a mind’ by Prof Mark Solms from the University of Cape Town on FutureLearn. It was the most thought-provoking exercise I had ever done. It not only interrogated the question, what is a mind, but what it is for, and provided insight into depression and mental disorders.

Although it was an extremely difficult topic, merging neuroscience and psychoanalysis (neuropsychoanalysis) to answer the question, what is a mind, the professor made it accessible to the students, ranging from neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, general practitioners, to ordinary people like me.

What I came away with was the newfound knowledge that the mind has four ‘defining properties’: subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and agency. Each of these is situated in a specific area of the brain.

That locates the mind firmly in the body. Without these structures in the brain, the mind ceases to exist. Prof Solms cited brain injury. If that part is damaged, you disappear into a coma. And those who emerge from a coma, when asked what it was like, said it felt like nothing. They were not there and suddenly they were.

However, this is disputed by others in the field, making it not only a challenging subject but also one riven with disagreements and counter arguments.

An interesting idea for me was that we share seven basic emotions with mammals, fear, anger, panic, seeking, lust, care and play. It made me look at animals in a different way.

My mother used to tell this story about a snake that chased her big brother. They grew up in the Free State and the chase took place in terrain where the grass was shoulder high. Every few metres the snake would lift its head out of the grass to look for its quarry.

Fortunately, his half-brother was with him and he warned, “It’s there!”, pointing to the right and my uncle would swerve to the left. Again a warning, “The snake is there!” which prompted a move to the other side. Aside from scaring the hell out of me, this story made me wonder about the determination of the snake. Now I’m thinking that he had probably activated its rage!

An excerpt: ‘The defining feature of the basic emotions is that they are inborn responses to situations of universal biological significance. They are, in a sense, inherited memories of how to respond in such situations, crucial for survival and reproductive success. Those of our ancestors who did not possess the genetic sequences that pre-programme these responses therefore tended not to survive and reproduce — which is why we do not resemble them. Take FEAR, for example, one of the seven basic emotions. If we had to learn what happens when we walk off cliffs, that would be the only thing that we ever learnt. Instead we are born with an instinctual aversion to heights, and several other such things (which reappear in most of the well-known phobias, which are over-sensitivities of this system). Rats, for this reason, freeze when exposed to a single cat hair, even on the first day of life. The FEAR system, though, like all basic emotion systems, is also open to learning. That is how things that evolution had no knowledge of, like electric sockets, come to be associated with fear.’

This course enriched my understanding of my place in the world, as well as driving home the importance of feelings as an indication of how well a person is doing in the world – which I will use in future when creating my characters.

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‘Imagine ourselves into being’

dscn0919This slogan of the first Abantu literary festival ignited my imagination into thinking, what would that entail? Here we can take a leaf out of recent events in America. Concerned about Donald Trump becoming president, most literary magazines set a challenge to their writers – write, explore the implications.

An example, PenSA currently has on its website a competition by Junot Diaz to write dystopian fiction. Lydia Yuknavitch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison, Lance Olsen, and Rebecca Solnit, are all dealing with the political landscape in interviews, on social media and in their writing.

I feel that in South Africa we can do more. In order to move forward you need to know where you come from. That place, where we come from, our history, has not been interrogated enough. The deep pain in the black communities hasn’t been addressed as much as it should be.

There is the belief that you should show the enemy strength by hiding how he has broken you. That is commendable. But then it means that that pain is buried so deep that it’s only expression can be anger (and violence).

I don’t pretend to know how to do it. We have a wonderful sense of humour in South Africa. After every calamity, such as the Gupta saga, there are memes to make fun of it. Maybe this is one way to address it? If you look carefully at Trevor Noah’s humour, it is based on not fitting in. Humour can be used in various ways to address serious topics.

In our communities there is knowledge about the recent past of the ANC and the struggle but not about our history since Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape. The history we learnt at school, at least during my generation, history with a purpose, cannot be trusted.

The goal was to present the Afrikaner as a hero. Think of the story of Rageltjie De Beer freezing to death, protecting her brother (because that is what we women are supposed to do); Paul Kruger killing a lion with his bare hands, and our own Paul Revere story about someone on his horse riding through difficulty to warn of the approaching enemy.

Because it was purpose driven, it left out certain things or presented them as mild. Like slavery. That beautiful picture of the attractive Van Riebeeck looking like a star is misleading. As soon as he set foot on the continent he petitioned the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for slaves.

We have to reclaim that history. Unlike in the American South where the north arranged for people to record the experiences of the slaves, we have nothing. Only Katie Jacobs who was interviewed in her nineties and told a story about being set free but the madam said how can you leave, the children need you. And like a good servant she stayed for another four years. (It would be interesting to know how the madam compensated her for that).

The true face of slavery was hidden and because it was hidden many of the apartheid laws sprouted from it, like carrying a pass. The slaves had to have a letter from their employer when they were out and about.

This hidden history has severely affected the brown people. All I know about the Khoena, which form a large part of my ancestry, is that they wore animal skins and rubbed themselves with animal fat. And, appropriately, everyone in my class said ‘ewe’.

As writers we know that the way you present information is to create a certain effect, a certain response. The presentation of the Khoena in our history books was to evoke shame (and contempt?) and it did. We know nothing about them inventing the original braai, about making shoes from animal skin, about their contribution, together with the slaves, to the creation of the Afrikaans language, about their religion based on Heitse Eibib.

The most potent weapon of war is the mind of the oppressed. Steve Biko. How has your mind been oppressed? We should interrogate the processes. Slowly, carefully, thoroughly. Analyse, think. Do you know what ‘total onslaught’ during apartheid really meant? I also don’t, so we have to learn – read and learn.

Highs and lows of 2016

I have Christmas snow falling across my computer screen (a feature of WordPress) and I’m feeling slightly queasy. It has been an eventful year.

I almost died, published my debut collection of short stories, Eye of a Needle, made the longlist of the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award, and had three poems accepted for the Atlanta Review, among others.

This is also the year in which we entered a new phase in our political landscape. Clashes between black protesters and white rugby supporters in the Orange Free State. Angry public responses to racist tweets or Facebook entries. ‘Fees must fall’ protests at universities. The spat about the rules for black hair at a school in Pretoria. The ruling party, the African National Congress, losing significant support in the local elections.

Sometimes I fear for my country. I worry that we’re losing the goodwill between the races built since 1994: friendships across colour lines, interracial marriages – a normalization of a fractured society.

At the same time I understand that the reconciliation drive after the advent of our democracy left largely intact the economic ownership in white hands, the judiciary, unequal land distribution, ownership of the media, and the unprecedented growth in private armies in the security sector.

Their role in reconstruction not being specified, whites didn’t really know what to do with the gift of reconciliation. Their contribution was therefore confined to exhortations to forgive, forget and move on. This has angered black people. The poet, Maakomele Manaka, puts it succinctly, before moving on there should be an ‘interrogation of the chains our limbs have  familiarized themselves with.’

This polarization is visible. When you read the comments section on any online forum such as newspapers, there is a war of words between black and white, marked by a promise of a day of reckoning coming from the radical and the ultra-conservative.

Yet, being an optimist, I still hope that we can negotiate this difficult terrain and emerge victorious on the other side. We’ve done it once, so why not again?