Yvette Christiansë talks about the background to her novel, Unconfessed
In 1825, the newly appointed Superintendent of Police for the Cape Colony
discovered a slave woman languishing in the Cape Town goal. Sentenced to death
on April 30 1823, Sila van den Kaap had not only survived, but also bore two
children while in prison. What had she done to deserve death? And what moved the
Superintendent to petition George IV for a full pardon on her behalf? Inspired
by actual nineteenth century court records, Unconfessed moves from the Cape Town
goal to Robben Island where Sila serves a commuted sentence of hard labor. On
this low, wind-harried stretch of land, on which Nelson Mandela would later
spend more than two decades, Sila breaks stones in the prison quarry, cleans the
warden's home, survives in the company of the few other women prisoners,
especially Lys, and sings a fierce, sometimes maniacal, sometimes wickedly
humorous love song to her dead son. He alone shares with her the deep privacy of
what happened that Christmas Eve, and why for, in public, when asked to explain
her act, Sila uttered nothing but one word: heertseer, or "heart sore."
While court and other records give the "who" and "when" of Sila's action, she herself remains locked in the anonymity of history's silence. In the vacuum of any first person slave narratives in the Cape Colony, the founding settlement of what would become the Republic of South Africa, this novel is a fictionalized account of a vanishing woman.
In many ways this novel has emerged out of an accidental, and uncanny encounter - accidental because it was not what I had imagined myself working on, and uncanny because I came to be haunted by a powerful trace of this woman's "voice". The "accident" of my first encounter with Sila came while reading a memorandum between the Colonial Office in London and the colony's Acting Governor in 1826. In the midst of bureaucratic demands and explanations, references to the need for new thatch for the prison roof, and for bushels of nibs, there she was, a woman who was supposed to have been hung three years earlier, but who was still alive. What did it take for someone, a slave, a woman, to survive a death sentence, and for three years? Why was she still alive, the Colonial Office demanded?
Intrigued, I put aside my larger project of attempting to answer a pressing question: Where are the direct, first-person slave narratives of the Cape Colony? What are the forms in which we may discern traces of self-articulation, and what conditions of possibility existed for such articulation? It has always been clear that the Cape Colony did not have any effective printing press, or one that was not controlled by the colonial government. As a result, the emergence of a literary tradition in the manner of slave narratives was not possible. Ironically, as my turning to Sila's story was to confirm, it seemed that the most immediate records of self-articulation are those of criminal proceedings in which any case of self-articulation was immediately seized upon as an act of resistance to slavery.
That first encounter with Sila in the Governor's memorandum took me years of summers and any other times I could get in the Cape Town archives, the British Library, and the Public Records Office in Kew. What pulled me? It was that trace, a single word that all of the official documents seemed unable to resist. That single word was the Dutch hertseer, which the Colonial Office translated directly into "heartsore." Not "grieving" or "griefstruck", but this forceful, corporeal, yet strangely nonexistent word, "heartsore." It is the one real word that she utters when confronted with her crime. When the prosecutor outlines and demands that she confirm her act, she utters one phrase, "Yes, because I was heartsore." Frustrated, he asks again, "Is it true, that on the night of " The record shows just one word. It is that word, again, and only that word. The prosecutor is clearly silent, and silenced because the court transcript intervenes with a summary of what followed: "the witness was overcome."
Unconfessed is Sila's fierce love song to her son Baro. Like the public record, it is radically fragmented. This is the only form that would resist any narrative longing for a complete, consoling recuperation of the colonial record on my part and, perhaps, a reader's.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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