Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

Scorched memories

Gareth Langdon reviews Dear Bullet, Sixolile Mbalo harrowing memoir

BY GARETH LANGDON

The act of remembering has two distinct functions. The first is recording – writing down events so as not to lose them in collective or individual memory. The second is catharsis – the act of writing and remembering as a way of dealing with trauma, a way of purging the mind or even the body of a painful memory.

Dear Bullet certainly falls into the second category, but to some degree also into the first. The book is the memoir of Sixolile Mbalo and her brutal rape and shooting in her rural town of Mpandela, a region of the Eastern Cape best known as the childhood home of Nelson Mandela. The story is simply written, but detailed. Mbalo recounts exactly what her experience was and how she perceived the events before and after the “incident”. She is attentive to her family’s reaction and aware of a dramatic shift in her inner and outer worlds after the fact.

In the book’s afterword, Anjie Krog (who helped Mbalo write the book), notes the author’s deliberateness in her task. She notes Mbalo’s steadfastness in getting her story down and her tangible desire to put a full stop at the end of this stage of her life. This is the working of catharsis for Mbalo. While she acknowledges that she hasn’t reached the end of her road, the book is her first step in moving forward.

The narrative begins with Mbalo directly addressing the bullet which is lodged in her head – the physical reminder of irreparable emotional damage. But the novel moves swiftly from addressing the bullet to addressing the reader as Mbalo “tries frantically to find a listener for her story”. This search for a listener raises a question around the relationship between reader and writer, listener and speaker. Once the audience is found, what should the result be?

In her simple and deliberate prose, Mbalo is able to easily communicate a set of circumstances so familiar to women all across this country, victims of violent crime in a largely poor and rural society, one which not only (in some cases) condones violence towards women, but is also helpless to prevent it. Failing infrastructure and policing have let many women down and, as a result, Mbalo’s story will most likely repeat itself. But for now, the text can provide a snapshot of reality for Mbalo and the many women like her and if it doesn’t provide answers, it certainly raises questions for the “listener”.

Taken as an historical moment, the memoir stands as an example to us: an example of an experience which we hope to push further into history, and out of the present. In this way, Dear Bullet has helped Mbalo remember, and may help us one day forget.

Dear Bullet is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.com.

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