Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
MEYER, Susan. "We are people. My children have faces." The natural environment and the conceptualising of the self in My Children Have Faces (Carol Campbell). Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2014, vol.54, n.4, pp.675-692. ISSN 2224-7912.
Carol Campbell's debut novel, My Children Have Faces: a novel about the Karretjiemense of the Karoo (2013), translated by Kirby van der Merwe into Afrikaans as Karretjiemense, is the story of a desperately poor, nomadic Karoo family, continually journeying on their donkey cart. They live as "invisible" people: because of their low social standing and illiteracy, they are seen as the scum of society, because of their homelessness and lack of identity documents, they are disregarded by the authorities. These characters struggle to find acknowledgment of their existence and worthiness in the eyes of the world. Nonetheless, each member of Muis and Kapok's family demonstrates a unique understanding of self-worth and of the personal identifying characteristics that relate to who and what he/she really is. The investigation is aimed at establishing to what extent the influence of the natural environment can be proven in the processes ofidentity construction of the karretjie people in this novel, and in which ways this influence shapes the characters ' conceptualising of the self. The focus of this exploration is ecocritical: the purpose is to come to an understanding of the concrete and psychological effects of the natural environment on human life and identity in Karretjiemense. The investigation is approached within the framework of on-going interest in questions of identity that are becoming an increasing focus of ecocriticism within South African literary studies. In my theorising of the concept of identity, the question of identity construction is thus placed within ecocritical context.The novel is also examined with attention to the socio-political context. The karretjie family are descendants of the San and Khoi people; the possibility that the development of their self-worth and a sense of belonging, which are components of personal identity, can be coupled with their relationship with nature is meaningful, read within the context of the debate on belonging and the self in nature (Steenkamp 2011:23) in the postcolonial South African era. In this debate, questions ofplace and displacement are central as a consequence of our history which is characterised by segregation, land disputes, forced removals and dispossession. Karretjiemense casts light on the experience of the self in relation to the natural world by those who could be expected to experience the connection with the land as problematic as a consequence of our colonial past.The investigation first establishes how the socially constructed identity of the karretjie people appears and what the effects of social thinking are on their self-image and self-experience. From this part of the investigation, it appears that Muis and her people struggle to form any positive self-image from the opinions of the community that scorns or ignores them therefore, it strikes the reader that none of these family members is depicted as someone without self-worth and self-respect. The investigative focus then shifts to establish how the natural environment and experiences in nature influence the characters' self-regard as well as what the extent of nature's impact on the shaping ofpersonal identity in the separate individuals of the family may be. This part comprises a probing investigation into the nature of the interaction with the natural world by focusing on the individual characters ' experiences thereof: those of Muis herself, Witpop, Fansie, and Kapok. Attention is focused on the manner in which meaning is allotted to the Karoo landscape by this family, and the various dimensions of their being that are involved in this process: the cognitive and the affective, as well as the spiritual. Further, the guidelines offered by the text regarding the scope and meaning of the physical and emotional interaction between these characters and the environment are interpreted to establish how nature contributes to each character 's self-worth and self-knowledge, qualities that are part of personal identity, and to establish an experience of belonging. Sufficient evidence was found that it is within the relationship with nature, through the individual experience ofthe Karoo environment and the reactive involvement with it, that Muis and her people discover their own value as well as qualities that contribute to their self-respect. It was also found that nature exercises a prominent and interactive presence in the lives of the karretjie family through its unavoidable power and the climate changes of the Karoo. The increasingly dry landscape becomes a character in itself through the impact that it exerts on the plot development and the direct effect that it has regarding the karretjie family's life situations and their final circumstances. Evidence of the dramatic way in which nature affects the human experience in Karretjiemense provides motivation for the finding that the people-nature connection is a key aspect ofthe characters ' experience of reality and consequently also on their self-perception and -image. Each character in the karretjie family uniquely demonstrates the effect of his/her close ties with nature on the construing of self-knowledge and self-identity as well as on each one 's sense of belonging. Read against the socio-political background of our times, Karretjiemense reflects insightful character experiences regarding the depiction of the self in relation to the natural world. The novel demonstrates close and unique connections between the self and nature, connections with an important function regarding the creation of identity. This offers a surprising alternative for the depiction of identity issues which accentuates the problematics of the concept of environmental belonging within the postcolonial context. Karretjiemense presents a disconcerting account of a segment of society that has so little and is so frequently overlooked, people who courageously arrive at the conceptualising ofthe self with the help of what is available: the context ofthe natural world.
Keywords : Carol Campbell; My children have faces; identity construction; natural environment; sense of place and belonging; ecocriticism.