A queer brown mixed-race woman in apartheid-era South Africa befriends an oppressed Indian housewife.
Yes, no cause is left unturned in Shamim Sarif’s The World Unseen. But Sarif has a lightness of touch that has the story chugging along briskly; you soon forget this one could be a text for Oppression 101 as you follow the fraught courtship of Amina and Miriam.
Pretoria, 1952, is a place where it is ” an offense for Blacks to eat in the same place as Whites.” Amina, who is of Indian descent, runs a restaurant that flouts this rule, for she holds herself answerable to no-one, not even her family or the authorities. Besides running a restaurant (in an illegal partnership with a Colored man), she drives a taxi, and works at odd jobs mostly involving manual labor. And she’s lesbian.
Before I get on with the story, it might be useful to note that under apartheid, the South African population was classified into four groups: Black, White, Indian, and Colored. The Colored group included people of mixed racial descent. (According to Wikipedia, “these terms are capitalized to denote their legal definitions in South African law”; I use these terms in the latter sense. )
Miriam left India to marry a South African Indian who has internalized apartheid so deeply that he no longer questions it. Omar runs a store in a small town outside Pretoria, follows the laws of the land implicitly, and is happy to toss in his own racial biases additionally, for instance telling Miriam that Blacks “would steal anything.” So in Omar, we have a person who is discriminated against due his color perpetuating the very same injustices against others. IDIOT!!!
The couple have two children, and that, more than anything else, has Miriam reconciled to her husband’s unconcern for her well-being. Then Miriam meets Amina, and realizes that she might have another shot at happiness. But the penalties for pursuing this relationship are very high, and besides, there are children to consider.
The World Unseen works as well as it does because of two factors: excellent characterization, and unobtrusive, elegant prose that builds up genuine suspense as to the lovers’ fate. And Sarif achieves the near-impossible by taking on a topic (apartheid) that has been covered by many writers, and presenting it with such passion that this system still shocks the reader. We all know how cruel and senseless apartheid was, but Sarif also shows its essential batshit craziness. When a policemen tells Amina she’s breaking the law by seating Blacks and Whites together, she replies that there aren’t any Whites in the restaurant. Then Officer Stewart says,
“…This is an Indian area. And Colored. …That means no Blacks.”
“They work for me.”
“And that is fine by me,’ the policeman replied…”But they shouldn’t be eating with you. It’s illegal.”
The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif
The Women’s Press Limited, 2001
Genre: Literary Fiction ***
Iam entering this review for the POC challenge, as well as the GLBT Reading Challenge.