Pain and the Breakdown of Language

In chapter 3 of Krog’s Country of My Skull, she explores the breakdown of language when confronted with indescribable pain. As she listens to the TRC testimony of Nomande, she reflects on her own pain and, like Nomonde, what it means to convey her own story despite it.

“The starting point of the human rights hearing was the indefinable wail that burst from Nomonde Calata’s lips in East London” (Krog 75). When retelling her experience of learning of her husband’s death, Nomonde Calata, overcome with grief she wails. Her cries expressed a pain that went beyond words and Krog, seeing this failure of language, realized that to adequately remember the crimes of Apartheid one must be taken to this prelinguistic state. She claims that being able to reclaim this pain and express it through words is to witness the rebirth of language and with it peace. To Krog, rediscovering and conquering this insurmountable pain by retelling their stories is how the people of South Africa will heal. She realizes that the hearings themselves may not exclusively be about amnesty, but also to give the victims ownership of their narratives and the opportunity to surmount the trauma that they faced at the hands of an oppressive regime and recover.

We see her do this herself at the end of the chapter as she confronts the immense pain she is in from reporting on the hearings. She finds herself sitting around “naturally and unnaturally, without words.”Despite her own traumatic experiences, she feels as though the work she is doing is exploitative but she recognizes that the stories must be told for the healing of the country as well as herself. She takes a break and realizes that she must also harness this pain and give birth to language that can heal a nation. Her job as a journalist is to provide a platform for the stories of the victims to be told and the reversion to this wordless state of pain is an integral part of the victims’ narratives.

One thought on “Pain and the Breakdown of Language”

  1. Lovely explication here. The flipside is that Krog also considers the *impossibility* of language to do this work – her ruminations on the ethics of narrating these stories is also worth thinking about. You might want to take a look at Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain.

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