Hybridity In Ezekiel Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue

Hybridity In Ezekiel Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue

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Hybridity in Ezekiel Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue

The criticism that Mphahlele's awareness of his being a "hybrid' person imparts an inability to his being able to "write his story himself " is a criticism contrived out of literal derivations of the Greek components of the word "autobiography". The textual landscape of Down Second Avenue includes many varied and detailed arenas, the rural setting and its many dimensions, the city and its many dimensions. In the sense that autobiography is part of the genre of biography in the postclassical European tradition, that being the life accounts of saints and princes, the criticism is perhaps true to some extent. However, in the aspect of the autobiography being a search for identity and hybridity being the essence of Down Second Avenue, it is hybridity per se that is the author's story.

A genre is works classified in terms of shared characteristics. 1
In studying the advent of autobiography as a genre in its own right, it would seem to be a particularly modern form of literature, a hybrid form of biography. Also, the distinctions between the forms of the biography, personal history or diary and novel are becoming questioned in that the autobiography is not an account of wisdom accumulated in a lifetime but a defining of identity. 2

The word "hybrid" is usually used in conjunction with genetic analysis of plants. A hybrid in its biological context is sometimes a sterile offshoot.
Hybrid can be defined as "mixed ancestry" As a word; "hybrid" carries denotations of the physical as well as the metaphysical. In Down second Avenue, Mphahlele examines both a hybrid society, that being South Africa 1930- 50 as well as its composite sub-societies, extensively hybrid within themselves. Mphahlele's awareness of having a mixed ancestry is rooted in more than one dichotomy. His rural identity is opposed to his urban identity, his vocation as a teacher/academic is opposed to his employment as a messenger boy, his introspective nature opposed to his being member of a gang. His acute understanding of South African society is ironic in his feeling liberated in departing from it. It is in hybridity that Mphahlele's identity resides.

Mphahlele sequentially chronicles the story of his own life from early childhood to his departure from the country to take up a teaching post in Nigeria. Throughout Down Second Avenue, Mphahlele expresses a feeling of powerlessness and sterility until he embarks upon leaving the country.

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Ultimately, despite his intricate awareness of his own hybridity and that of the societies around him, he does succeed in chronicling his life as a search for personal identity. It is thus incorrect to postulate that he has not effectively "told his life story himself."

Mphehlele's story is one of a character shaped by attrition.
The attrition of a river against its banks can serve a positive purpose in broadening its flood plain. It can however also precipitate disaster as Mphehlele relates in his early childhood, the eloping lovers who try to cross the Leshoana river in full flood, one of whom is wrenched from the others grasp and drowned.

In describing scenes at a water tap in Marabastad, Mphahlele conjures up an image of the tap being the Leshoana River in the rural setting of his early childhood, the tap supplying "more water than anybody needed ".
This imagined scene provides the writer with a substrate to define with symmetry, where he has come from and where he is.

Of all the characters of the work, Ma-Janeware embodies the most hybrid of all identities. Her personal reality as the widow of a Portuguese trader might just as well be genuine as contrived. . With this identity Ma-Janeware uplifts herself by disparaging black people, although ironically, she herself is black.

In his becoming a member of a gang for the purpose of stealing food, Mphahlele relates his experiences whilst simultaneously unveiling corners of Marabastad. Through descriptions of the traders like Abdool and Fung Prak the Chinaman, of whom the idea has been instilled eats human flesh, Mphahlele reveals his mindset in his thieving exploits.

Mphahlele relates his well justified fear of the Gaza church, where in one instance the priest tries to saw off an invalid child's legs after a failed prayer healing attempt. He constantly juxtaposes the positions of the various churches on issues such as the government's education policy. He compares those aspects of each he reveres as well as those he disparages. The church is a universal phenomenon in the psyche and day to day experience of the writer throughout his childhood and early adulthood. He sees how the various churches are both a help and hindrance
. His church based education of early and late childhood and his position of employment as teacher are accrued through church institutions. However, he loathes the church for the disparateness of people around him including his grandmother:
"The teaching that broke down a good deal of the individualism of the eastern Transvaal Africans."
In this aspect Mphahlele reveals clearly both the hybridity as well as the symmetry between the various churches in his experience.

An important dichotomy is Mphahlele's determined vocation as academic and teacher and his employment as messenger boy, journalist. He is fired as messenger boy under the familiar South African axiom, "being cheeky." He relates how possessing an academic qualification is in fact a hindrance
to obtaining basic employment. His predisposition against the banal nature of the then Drum magazine is a source of conflict in his being engaged as a sub-editor thereto.

It is a human social psychological trait to see our own social group as highly differentiated whilst seeing other groups as homogenous, the members thereof being identical. This is day to day reality in South Africa and any life account in this context where a writer relates their story without tracing his/ her experience of social conflicts and their implications would have absolutely no integrity.

In his receiving his M.A degree, Mphahlele describes how, at the ceremony, the university staff in their gowns:
"looking terribly South African and medieval all at once."
The ridiculous possibilities of this scenario are rooted in the hybrid aspect of European Academic attire adorned in a distinctly African situation, that being the graduation ceremony of exclusively non-white students.

The description of the after party of the same ceremony, the celebration in a suburb that is officially white where such scenarios are prohibited by statute, serves further to illustrate the human inclination to break free of existing social order. When a policeman interrupts the celebrations, humanity prevails in that the policeman moves on after being offered a drink.

If anything, Mphehlele's awareness of his hybridity in Down Second Avenue imparts a distinct focus that enhances his ability to tell his own story which tells far more than the life experience of one individual. Its succeeds in both form and function as a biography, personal history and novel.




The New Collins Concise Dictionary Of The English Language. London: Guild Publishing; 1985.
Roger Fowler (Editor) A Dictionary Of Modern Critical Terms; London & New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, 1987

1. Roger Fowler (Editor) A Dictionary Of Modern Critical Terms, p. 104
2. Ibid., p 24
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