Hagen Engler’s upcoming novel, ‘In The Maid’s Room’, is going to do two things for readers: make people laugh until their stomachs ache, and talk about race in a way that needs to happen. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
For anyone outside South Africa, Hagen became the voice of a generation in about 1997, when he was writing for the Eastern Province Herald, The Weekend Post, and self-publishing novels, anthologies, and zines. His stories and essays have always been honest, insanely funny, occasionally self-deprecating, and often about surfing (or what people do between surfing and planning to surf). But his writing is arguably best known for capturing suburban Port Elizabeth, my home town, in exquisite detail. Which is not necessarily an ‘exquisite’ place, in the traditional sense.
Port Elizabeth, PE, is its own little empire. It’s an industrial city that only those who grew up there (or have lived there for a considerable period of time) seem to appreciate fully, warts and all. Historically, it gets a lot of shit from bigger cities because there’s limited corporate infrastructure, industries seem a few years behind the times, nightclubs are seedy, people speak in a nasally blue-collar accent, everyone knows everyone, and life happens at a generally more relaxed pace. Not crimes, by any means.
These are just generalizations. There’s obviously more to it than that.
A lot more, as you’ll see in the book.
“How to be white when you’re no longer centre of attention? When you no longer even matter? How to be white when everyone’s patience runs out? These existential questions are addressed in Hagen Engler’s third novel, the satirical farce In the Maid’s Room. Disco Dave is a South African hipster on the Port Elizabeth social scene, such as it is. His dreams of media moguldom evaporate before his eyes as the scene becomes overwhelmingly blacker and his understanding of it more tenuous. Hard-up for bucks, he moves into the maid’s room on his property and rents out the main house. Sizwe arrives and swiftly sets about taking over Disco’s life…. ” – ‘In The Maid’s Room’ Synopsis
‘In The Maid’s Room’ is a recreation of Port Elizabeth, each chapter a self-contained Tour de Culture of PE’s social scene through Disco’s eyes. The car park conversations, bars, clubs, restaurants, drugs, sex (pomping), bars, beaches, surf scene, internal dilemmas over not doing more with your life, beauty pageants, social hierarchy, and all the superficial distractions that are preventing Disco from making something of himself; this is authentic PE in your twenties.
The book is also a bit like The Force Awakens to Hagen’s old-school fans, in a way. It’s being published by Jacana (who also published his last non-fiction triumph, Marrying Black Girls for Guys Who Aren’t Black), rather than his indie-publishing imprint, Pocket Assegaai. The novel reboots a lot of his classic characters (real and otherwise) and scenes, threading actual events and places into the narrative, all told with Hagen’s classic mix of dry humor and exaggeration. It’s loaded with intertextuality, too – Wax Wilson from ‘Buttons For Gaie‘ gets a mention, along with a reference to Hagen’s classic 10 Reasons Why Cape Town Can Fuck Off piece from Skyfe! Zine, for the fans.
The Maid’s Room
I know that moments that have seemed insignificant have had a lasting effect on me. One such moment was the first time I ventured into the maid’s room one afternoon as a little girl. I suppose I was curious, and feeling bold. A white child just knew that one was not supposed to go into “their” places. The inside of her room was certainly very strange to me – it’s musty smell; the inside walls only roughly plastered; the extreme frugality compared with our house, which it adjoined. Whiteness Just Isn’t What Is Used to Be, Melissa Steyn
All the funny stuff that sets the story up create a pathway towards a well-crafted climax that opens the door up some of the tougher questions that aren’t being answered without tempers flaring. Things that can’t be asked without things getting uncomfortable. I’m not saying this with any measure of resolve, or like I’ve got it figured out; I’m a white South African who was raised and educated in the late 80’s and 90’s. The spoils of institutional racism and being the beneficiary of Apartheid will always difficult to discuss and unpack.
How can it not be?
The maid’s room metaphor elevates the novel to a new level and is the perfect location to deconstruct Disco’s identity. The arrival of Sizwe brings readers up close to the mirror of whiteness, of privilege and cultural siloing, into the light where every mole, pimple, and flaw is exposed. Sizwe is a dynamic character and frenemy, who balances Disco’s POV and completes the story.
I wish I could have read ‘In The Maid’s Room’ as an outsider, to appreciate the lyrical wizardry with fresh objectivity. That’s impossible, though. It’s written in my mother tongue, like the song of my people, forged in the local folklore, tall stories and places I grew up visiting. I inhaled it, like a loosely rolled spliff bought in Central, and was transported back to Port Elizabeth for a few days.
You can pre-order ‘In The Maid’s Room’ here, read an excerpt here, or follow the Instagram account. To read more of Hagen’s work and check out the links to some of his other books, visit HagensHouse.com.