Defiant Desire

Each month, we invite prominent people to tell us about their most powerful reads. Here, the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, Athi-Patra Ruga, shares with us what kept him turning the pages… ATHI-PATRA RUGA THE BOOK THAT C H A N G E D MY LIFE What’s the name of the book? Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa. It was compiled by Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron. How old were you when you discovered it? It was in 1996: I was 12 years old and had been an avid reader for some years. How did you come across it? I discovered it in the East London Central Library, where I used to go for chess practice. I’m sure that it was my curiosity about queer culture that made me relate to this anthology of local experience. Was there a particular character who grabbed your imagination? The story of Gertie Williams caught my attention.

A member of a gang, the Flying Tigers, Gertie had the most fascinating jobs, including caddy, ‘garden boy’, trawler fisherman and more. For me, a young boy growing up in an industrial town, her story was a source of colour and fantasy. What emotions did it inspire in you? Gertie [somehow] embodied various aspects of all the women who had raised me until that point, from her sexual orientation to her vices and style. If I remember correctly, she was arrested for stealing her grandpa’s clothes, as she had to dress as a man to find work in 1950s Cape Town. That perspective was probably my first sign of maturity. Did the anthology influence your views? It gave me a sense of history and belonging, and it presented me with a wide selection of characters and heroes.

It led to the destruction of the idea that being gay is ‘unAfrican’, as, for the first time, I was introduced to a cross-section of South African stories from the whole ‘rainbow’: black, urban stories presented in a sophisticated manner. Is there a contribution in it that left a lasting impression on you? An essay by activist Zackie Achmat entitled ‘My Childhood as an Adult Molester – a Salt River Moe’. I just believed it was the most badass title for anything! I remember it still, because I use it as a mantra for a phase in life. Can you sum up its effect on you in a few words? In retrospect, I know that it nudged me towards a desire to bear witness to my times. I believe that artistic expression of any form carries that responsibility.

OTHER BOOKS ON MY PERSONAL SHORT LIST Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noel Mostert. It took me four years to finish and it’s a priceless historical piece. The Designer Scam by Colin McDowell … an eye-opening indictment of the fashion world in 1994. It somehow still rings true after all these years.

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Defiant Desire

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