Intersections of disability and sexuality in Gappah’s “An Elegy for Easterly”
Zimbabwean female novelist, Petina Gappah, in her debut collection of short stories, writes compellingly of stories of women with disabilities revealing the ambivalence and ostracisation that circumscribe their lives. One such story is that of Martha Mupengo, a deranged, lonely woman in “An Elegy for Easterly.” Martha is the heroine of the story; the fictional image of Martha and her mental illness are compelling, and, although “her name and memory, past and dreams, were lost in the foggy corners of her mind” (“Elegy,” p. 30), Martha is the central figure around whom the entire story revolves and she evokes an important metaphor in the study of disability and sexuality within the racially defined national context of Zimbabwe.
In Gappah’s story, Martha, is so named, because she looked like another Martha—some uncanny reincarnation of Mai James’ niece-in-law “in the last days when her illness had spread to the brain.”Thus, the later Marthas identity is instantly characterised and framed by a back-reference to another woman with a similar psychological or mental illness. Thus, the present Martha both embodies and conjures the image of lunacy and her identity appears fully realised and legitimised and, as the novelist points out:
It was the children who called her Mupengo, Mudunyaz and other variations on lunacy...The name Martha Mupengo stuck more than the others, becoming as much a part of her as the dresses of flamboyantly coloured material, bright with exotic flowers...
Significantly, one of the representational strategies the author deploys is the act of naming Martha. Naming in the African socio-cultural context is important, and it refers to the way people may be perceived since it allows us to place and identify them in the social world.Thus, names may serve political, social or psychological purposes. Typically, parents or adults name their children but, in other senses, children may name adults. One of such instances is when children nickname adults, but such cases are not quite normalised as acceptable behaviour. Gappah captures this effectively:
The children understood that Martha’s memory was frozen in the time before they could remember, the time of once upon a time, of good times that their parents had known, of days when it was normal to have more than leftovers for breakfast. .. .Like Martha’s madness, the Christmas records and bonuses were added to the games of Easterly Farm.
Martha is one of the last local migrants to the Easterly neighbourhood—a sprawling ghetto that springs up when the government dispossesses the people of their land and homes to make way for new developments in the township. This dislocation, in particular, is for the Queen of England’s three-day visit to Harare. Living on the fringes of the community, and with only children—“the Under-Eight’s” led by Tobias—as her occasional companions, Gappa powerfully delineates her protagonist’s separation and isolation from the rest of the Easterly Farm community. Martha’s isolation is accentuated by the distance, apathy and caution with which the adults of Easterly Farm treat her, thus making her life more perplexing.
In spite of her isolation, Martha’s life story innocuously and routinely intersects with that of other members of the community in both private and public dimensions, foregrounding an important representational strategy the novelist deploys to comment on the socio-cultural realities of all the people. Martha’s life is conditioned by her socio-cultural and political positioning as a woman in a traditionally patriarchal setting. Then also, in quite a bizarre, yet profound manner, the novelist deploys Martha’s lunacy as a metaphor representing the universally bad times that had befallen the country, forcing large numbers of Zimbabweans to live in such dehumanising, sordid squalor and abject poverty found on Easterly Farm and the other slums of Porta Farm, Hatclifte, and Dzivaresekwa Extension. More particularly, Martha is both female and disabled, and she is thus doubly jeopardised by these circumstances.
Death and its various other symbolisms—loss, destruction—in physical, material and deeply psychological terms is perhaps the most pervasive literary trope Gappah deploys to critique life on Easterly Farm. As one of the late-comers to Easterly, Martha simply arrives and sets up residence in the vacant house of the late Titus Zunguza, where a triple homicide had previously occurred. Completely oblivious to the horror, stench and stains of blood in the deserted house, Martha starts a new life that significantly challenges the normative patriarchy of many African cultures. Since Titus Zunguza is dead ,and unlike the lives of the other women in the story, whose husbands still dominate their lives and psyche, Martha is totally free from any form of patriarchal domination or authority, both physically and psychologically.This, therefore, spells for Martha a certain degree of sexual freedom that the other women in the story do not seem to experience.
Typically represented in this story as marginal, Marthas sexual life appears contradictorily dominant, yet simultaneously subsumed in the vague references to it. As noted earlier, sexuality in its most rudimentary form refers to a persons sexual identity, which is, of course, framed by the background of a particular history or culture. In particular, sexuality is embodied, and it is realisable or performed through relationships or interactions with other persons. In Africa, the sexuality of persons with disabilities are often conceptualised as non-existent, so that Martha’s sexuality is not conveyed in bold, definitive terms by the author. Rather, it is described in largely subtle and merely suggestive undertones. Indeed, Martha’s sexuality is often obscured and depicted in infantile terms in the narrative. This is because she is mostly in the company of children who are not conscious of their sexual realities at this stage. Constantly, as she gently lifts her colourful dresses when she is teased by her regular companions—the children—Martha may be expressing her sexual fantasies or yearnings, but this is, for the children, no more than playful sport. As far as the surrounding adult world is concerned, Marthas gestures are merely childlike. At any rate, she is imprisoned by her disability, so they cannot possibly conceive of any connection between her reported gestures and any sexual yearnings because, in their traditional orientation/imagination, her disability rules out such possibilities.
In typical African cosmology, life and death cycles are never rigidly separated.Thus, in death, life is often subsumed. In Gappah’s narrative, life and death seem to be inexorably intertwined through Martha and this is dramatically played out at least twice in the story. Although Martha may be seen to embody death as she lives in Zunguza’s house, she also carries within her sexuality a potentially life-giving force. As previously noted, Martha’s sexual well-being is not a primary concern to the adults in Easterly [she is hardly seen as human).Yet, her sexuality at a critical moment profoundly connects with that ofjosephat, the miner. Indeed, in a somewhat paradoxical manner, we encounter Martha, not as a ‘monstrous freak’, but as one whose body provides Josephat with warmth and succour. Regardless of the momentariness of the occasion, the experience validates Martha’s sexuality as well as her personhood. And although Martha becomes pregnant, no one in the neighbourhood shows any concern for her consequent reproductive health issues.
In a moment of overwhelming intense desire for sex, Josephat s unassuageable sexual needs are, momentarily, of utmost importance—seeming out of control and yet, paradoxically, in control—Josephat defies strong cultural taboo, the stench and horror that haunt the late Zunguza’s hut, and even the fear of a lunatic woman, to have deep intimacy with Martha. This singular encounter powerfully suggests that libidinal forces may compel sexual desires without a priori reasoning. And this incident is neither indiscretion nor rape; rather, it is the authors powerful symbolisation of a barrier-breaking reconstruction of traditional narratives about sexuality and persons with disabilities. In this powerful symbol, the author deconstructs the concept of normalcy to demonstrate the humanity of disabled persons. Indeed, in that overpowering moment, Josephat imbues Martha with humanity and she becomes for him, a sexual being—challenging and completely deconstructing the image of a perfect, desirable, normal and beautiful mind and body that is usually acceptable or attractive for intimate relations.
The central narrative at this point is that Marthas body is acted upon; she is a passive receptacle for Josephat’s forceful libido. It is not Martha who seeks intimate, sexual relations with Josephat. On the contrary, Josephat seeks her out, although her sexuality appears repressed all along. In spite of the surrounding social attitudes that ignore or discountenance Marthas femininity, Josephat seems momentarily preoccupied with a mere body, anybody: even one devoid of any capacity for intelligent sexual expressions.This is underscored by the commonly held notion that disabled people are incapable of expressing deep emotions and intimacy and, to this extent, she may be seen as the victim of a violation.
The author also prefigures the intersection of Marthas life with that ofjosephat’s wife. In a very brief but ominous encounter, the two women brush shoulders, instantly mirroring their connections. For the first time, Josephat’s wife sees “the full contours of pregnancy” in Martha, unknown to her that it was her husband who had uncannily connected the two women. As the novelist describes it, “the winter of Marthas baby was the winter ofjosephat’s leave from the mine. It was Easterly’s last winter” (p. 45). In this way, Martha’s disability, directly or indirectly, affects the lives of normative others in the society. Auspiciously, Josephat’s wife midwife’s Martha; delivering her of the baby just as Martha faints, again dramatising the life/death cycle of African cosmology'.
Josephat’s wife performs an incredibly humanising act of kindness. Able to, at least, save the baby which she takes in to be nursed by her and completely oblivious that she is carrying her husband’s child in her arms, Josephat’s wife’s actions proves not only humanising—they become a life-giving idiom that deconstruct the barriers that alienate people with disabilities. By fostering the new-born child, Josephat’s wife provides the possibility of a better future for the child.Thus, in the ironic twist of their connecting fates, Martha provides the emotional link and resolution for Josephat and his wife—humanely resolving the anxieties and stigmatisation of lunacy.