I’ve always loved reading. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I don’t have a boyfriend. I’d rather sit and read a book than go to a noisy club. Anyway, I’ve read quite a few books in my time. Not as many as I’d like, but much more than most people my age.
In 2006, when I was 14, a controversial novel called Moffie by André Carl van der Merwe crashed onto the South African literary scene. Immediately I knew to things: 1. I was probably going to end up reading it. 2. I would probably only end up doing that in my 20’s.
Each time I saw the novel, it made my skin crawl. That word, moffie, is the Afrikaans version of ‘faggot’, and a name that I’ve been called all too often. Since I can remember, that word has been present, long before I even knew what it meant. Or what ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ or even ‘sex’ meant. Thus, each time I saw that word in large, white letters staring at me, it felt like a stab.
According to some psychiatrists, by the time we reach the age of six we are fully shaped into the person that we will be for the rest of our lives. I fully believe that. By the time I was 6, I had gone to the circus for the first time. Going home that night I knew that one day I would end up becoming some form of entertainer. By the age of 6 I had experienced enough trauma and disappointment to turn me into the socially awkward, cynical introvert that I am today. By the age of 6 I also knew that I was gay. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew.
I still remember the moment clearly. I was five years old and walking around on the playground of my nursery. I looked at the other children who were playing and laughing. I didn’t play or laugh much (or have friends), but that is another story. As I looked at all of them together, I suddenly realized something: I like boys more than girls.
I didn’t know what it meant. I also didn’t think it was strange, because in my innocence I was smart enough to know that it was a part of me, just like my brown hair and my greenish/bluish eyes. I believe that no one is born into the closet. I certainly wasn’t. I didn’t start hiding my sexuality until I got a little older and realized that it is something that is often frowned upon.
But I digress…
Moffie continued to haunt me. Each time I went into a bookstore I would end up somehow coming across the novel. Sometimes I would even crouch in behind a bookshelf and read a few sentences. I didn’t want anyone to see me reading the novel, because that would be like painting the word GAY onto my forehead. But I also wanted to read the novel, and also not. Gay stories, like Brokeback Mountain, Angels in America, and Milk, often end up being riddled with violence, tragedy, and injustice. I can still handle reading about things that happen to other groups of people, but when I read about things that happen to gay people, it makes the possibility of it happening to me that much stronger.
Time went by and I grew up. I moved to Pretoria and came out of the closet. This year, while looking for costumes to use in a show at a hospice, I came across the root of all evil: a second-hand bookstore. I often go there to look for cheap books (I mean, the most expensive books are priced R60.00 – come on!) even when I don’t really need or can’t really afford them. It’s the hoarder in me.
When I got ready to go to Harrismith I knew that I would need some books to keep me busy. At least that’s the reason I used to justify my trip to the bookstore. I was scanning through the titles looking for a Stephen King that I haven’t read yet, or anything else that could catch my eye. And, lo and behold, my old friend Moffie was there. I grabbed it without thinking, and immediately looked over my shoulder to check if the gay police were watching me. Even after coming out, I still feel a bit nervous that people might see. I guess it was the pink T-shirt experience. Anyway, this time I knew that I had run out of excuses. The book was still in great condition, and also ridiculously low-priced, so I simply had to take it.
I started reading the book after I finished We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is a tough act to follow. Now, as with The Rocky Horror Show, this isn’t a review. I’ve started writing novels many times, but somewhere around page 50 I realize the story is crap and then I stop. That’s why I stick to writing short stories, plays, and blogging. I simply wrote this because Moffie affected me deeply.
From the moment I started reading it, I knew that I was reading one of the most important books I will ever read. I finally found a book that speaks for me. It is set during the years of Apartheid when young men were forced to join the army after finishing school. I always knew that it was a difficult time for those men, but I never knew what the sheer horror of it all was, especially for gay men. Being gay was against the law those days and a great taboo, especially in the army. If you were found out, you would get tortured by all types of ‘therapy’, including shock therapy. It was a violent, terrible time to be gay in South Africa. So yes, the story is riddled with tragedy and violence, but unfortunately, when you are gay you are often faced with discrimination, and quite often it doesn’t end well.
“I am gay. Gay – this word and everything it stands for – is what I am at the age of nine, although I have not even heard it yet. I know it, I feel it and, in secret, I start living it.”
What makes this book different is the fact that it is written from a uniquely South African perspective. I’m a proud Afrikaner, but that being said, cruelty is something that Afrikaners have been known for. They are a group of people deeply rooted in religion, and they often justify some of the most inhumane and horrid acts as being ‘done for God’. This also makes them very closed-minded when it comes to homosexuality. We are seen as the Antichrist by many of them, simply because they don’t understand us. I imagine this to be much worse in the army, where individuality is crushed and people get molded to all be the same. But, like Jeanne Goosen said; We’re Not All Like That.
“Dearest, dearest Lord… please, please, please… I beg of you, God, make me straight… God, this is not what I want. It is not my choice. I beg you; I beg you, make me straight. I believe you can, Lord. I believe it. Please, my Holy Father, I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.”
What I loved the most was the fact that it was written by a gay man. Moffie is based on the life experiences of André Carl van der Merwe. This makes the characterization of Nicholas, the protagonist, much more realistic. There are many women who believe that men can’t write proper female characters. The same is often true (not always) with straight writers. Gay characters are popping up in the media quite often these days, but most of them leave me cold. People have a certain idea in their minds of what it’s like to be gay, but because they aren’t, they often miss the point. Nicholas became real to me. Nicholas became me. I fell in love with the boys he fell in love with. I felt the heartache that he felt.
“…according to his dominee, homosexuality is the worst of all sins, much worse even than murder. Nowhere in the Bible did God punish as harshly as he did the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and that was because of their homosexuality.”
And perhaps that’s the best part. Above all, it’s a love story. It shows us that even in the darkest times, love is stronger than the greatest hate. And even when evil conquers, love still remains. Love is possible. It is possible to fall in love, even if you are gay.
Most of all, the story makes me grateful. People often say that I am an old soul, but I know that if I lived during that time, I wouldn’t have survived. I probably would have lost my mind or committed suicide. So, it makes me grateful. It makes me grateful that I can now go on dates with guys and not worry about being arrested (despite the fact that my love life is a tragedy in itself). I can perform on stage in dresses with makeup, wigs, and pantyhose, and I don’t have to worry that someone is going to come and shut down the performance. Yes, sometimes I also get treated like shit, but this book opened up my eyes to the fact that there was a time when it was much, much worse.
“I am a homosexual; I am gay. I know this is not tolerated. I know that you see it as a weakness, as despicable. I know how you feel about the shame this would bring on the family, but believe me, I CANNOT CHANGE.”
Moffie has since been adapted into a stage production by Bailey Snyman. I heard that the show will be revived in January. I can only hope that it will come to Gauteng, because I love theatre, and from what I hear there are half-naked men in the show, making my motivation that much stronger.
So, thank you, André Carl van der Merwe, for sharing your story with us. We needed it. We needed to see how bad it was. And I’m glad to know that twinks even existed back then, although I believe you called them twinkies.