When I was writing The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years, a novel of haunting love and loss set in an Indian community on the east coast of South Africa, it didn’t immediately occur to me that it was a gothic novel. Looking back, it seems obvious—it had all the conventional genre tropes—the haunted house on the hill, the wild landscape, odd characters, ghostly elements and the disjointed rhythm of unease. It didn’t occur to me because these were simply features from my life growing up in my South African Indian home. It was only when I started to pick at the origins of the genre that I realized how much of the gothic existed not only in my life, but also far beyond the western world it is associated with.
The gothic with its deep European roots was born from many things, but it was particularly a historical anxiety of the time that brought it to life. However, historical anxiety drove the ideas and development of many places, especially colonized countries that included South Africa and India. The stories that arose in those countries used local cultural, religious, mythological and superstitious beliefs to encourage haunting stories that would be classified ‘gothic’ in nature from a western point of view. Stories featured haunted homes, ghostly spirits, omens and a growing terror that much like the gothic was able to articulate the social, cultural and economic upheaval of a new world order.
But when writers outside Anglo-Europe and North America write about the gothic, a genre usually associated with western literature, it is still common to say they are ‘reimagining’ or putting a ‘new spin’ on an old classic. It gives the impression that these stories would not exist without the genre to begin with; that without the western conventions that define it, there would be no structure for these stories to build upon. However, these stories were there, they were just not being told in the west.
My grandfather arrived in South Africa from India in 1935 and though he was a traveling salesman, he was mainly known as a storyteller, one who gathered his grandchildren around to hear his tales. His stories ranged from Indian folktales to more ominous ones about thieves lying in wait in dark palaces. The stories we read from the Quran had djinns, otherworldly creatures made from smokeless fire who were invisible to the human eye. My family, especially my aunts had frightful tales; about djinns under trees that stalked them at sunset, tokoloshes (a spirit from Zulu folklore) that visited them at night and ghosts or spirits that wandered their homes.
All story-telling is, of course, an escape, but stories told to frighten or thrill speak to a different kind of escape; one where you need a world more disturbing than your own to exist. Many of my relatives in the generations before me had lives filled with struggle and these were the ones who told the most magical and sometimes, most terrifying stories. My grandfather was a boy who had come from a small village in a country where the British had plundered and dominated the subcontinent to a new, unfamiliar country where the British were still ruling and where apartheid was just burgeoning into existence. We didn’t know it until we read his notes—but my grandfather was an anxious person and after my grandmother passed away, he took up reading and story-telling with an intensity that made it seem like he needed it to exist. My aunt told the most incredible ghost stories, including of a female ghost who watched her from the foot of her bed at night, and also told us the stories of how her mother fled Burma when the Japanese invaded and how she had to abandon everything and begin an impoverished life in India and then South Africa. The story tellers in my family used stories to escape reality—the creepier they were, the further we moved from reality. Early in his essay, Why We Crave Horror Movies Stephen King mentions that one of the reasons we watch horror is to re-establish our feelings of essential normality, that no matter how horrible the scenes in front of us get—we know we are ‘light years away from true ugliness.’ In that sense the stranger the story, the safer reality feels and perhaps this is why people who are prone to anxiety are drawn to horror. In The New York Times piece, How Horror Stories Help Us Cope With Real Life, Coltan Scrivner, a researcher at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University says that when you watch a horror movie, you can “switch the source of your anxiety.”
The haunting of homes, places and people in the stories I heard growing up were often intrinsically linked to persecution by those in power. An aunt who had to leave her home in Mayfair, South Africa because of apartheid’s group area act that forcibly moved non-whites into other areas, complained her new home in Vrededorp was haunted by ‘something’ and my mother describes seeing shadows circling the room. My mother’s family who were forced to move from their large house on lush land filled with fruit trees into a block of flats built hastily by the apartheid government, complained the building was haunted. The rooms were tiny and damp and the building bordered an overgrown field with a dilapidated flour mill rumoured to contain the graves of workers who had been crushed there years ago. My mother and her family constantly heard furniture being moved in the middle of the night, some said they saw spirits walking the passages, one aunt said a ghost would try to strangle her and one flat in particular seemed to host a myriad of spirits from ghosts to djinns to tokoloshes. Another aunt who lived nearby in a house next to a river said at night she would look out her window and see ghosts ploughing the fields and hear them singing. The lives of so many around me who had felt the effects of displacement and colonization were filled with vengeful spirits, haunted homes and surreal landscapes; the very things that give gothic stories their essence.
Ghosts, one of the central features of the gothic, featured heavily in the stories I heard growing up. In a 2018 article for the The New York Times, the editor and critic, Parul Sehgal wrote, ‘The ghost story shape-shifts because ghosts themselves are so protean—they emanate from specific cultural fears and fantasies … However, ghost stories are never just reflections. They are social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs; the past clamoring for redress.” Ghosts are markers of unspeakable tragedy, heartbreak, unfulfilled desire and incomprehensible rage; colonized countries, stolen land and places of deep sorrow, teem with them. What are ghosts, if not the hurts we cannot let go of? The ghost in southern gothic novels like Tony Morrison’s Beloved speaks to the horrors of slavery, how a history of unspeakable pain can take its own form. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing uses spirits to comment on the social crises of African Americans in the south and how the undead have to sing their own songs to move on. Ghosts then, are not only the dead walking, they are also deeply political messages.
South Africa, with its traumatic history of colonization and apartheid, is full of ghosts. And the country’s African magic realism is rife with the supernatural—witch doctors, ancestors’ spirits, tokoloshes and black magic—which creates an ideal environment for the gothic to flourish. This terror even spreads into class, inter-ethnic and economic tensions in the country argues Fred Botting and Justin D. Edwards in Globalgothic who refer to the example of a mob in South Africa in 2008 who threw three migrant workers to their death calling them witches who stole their jobs. Witchcraft and zombification are linked to African immigrants by a society ‘dramatically changed by the social, cultural and economic impacts of globalization,’ they write. This same societal fear even carried over to my novel and drove us to change the title of the South African edition because my local publisher pointed out that South Africans were superstitious and the word “djinn” in the title could deter readers from the novel.
Decolonizing the gothic should not mean to reimagine traditional gothic stories with new characters in new places—it means to recognize that these gothic stories were happening in other cultures and places outside the western world. That common western gothic tropes exist as their own version in other parts of the world, or as Glennis Byron puts it in Globalgothic, there is a “…growing awareness that the tropes and strategies Western critics have associated with the gothic, such as the ghost, the vampire and the zombie, have their own counterpart in other cultures, however differently these may be inflected by specific histories and belief systems.”
It is to acknowledge that gothic literature—with its haunted homes, lonely landscapes, broken characters and longing borne of deep despair—has always been a universal story, not a western one.