For more questions – some very probing – read my interview with Write Away.
Why have you set so many novels and short stories in South Africa?
It is where I spent my childhood. For a long time South Africa was a very sick society. No justice, no equality, no democracy. Only white people had power and they made everything depend on skin colour. My father migrated from Cornwall in England when the tin mines were closing and gold was discovered in South Africa in the 1880s. My mother’s family fled from the pogroms against Jews in Russia to England from where her parents migrated to South Africa. All my grandparents immediately had more rights than black people whose ancestors had been living there for generations. I was brought up accepting the way things were. As a child I never questioned why I could live with my parents in a comfortable home, go to school, play in the park and do all sorts of things black children were not free to do. My upbringing led me to believe that white people were superior and it was natural for them to have the best of everything. But when I realised how false this was, I became very angry at all the injustice around me – and how I was part of it. I had been brought up with blinkers. Later, when I began to write, I wanted to write stories that would challenge narrow ways of seeing.
What made you change your own ways of seeing?
Luckily when I went to university, I met people who challenged me to open my eyes. It was the early 1960s when the African National Congress was banned and Nelson Mandela went ‘underground’ before he was captured. I became involved in resistance to apartheid which taught me a lot. Eight weeks of solitary confinement in jail, when I was twenty one, gave me a sense of how the country was a giant jail for most of its people. I was still a very ‘small fish’ at the time of my arrest. But I was very aware of the enormous commitment of many people who risked long sentences and even death for their beliefs.
I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve but if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
– Nelson Mandela, 1964 and 1990
Hear me talk about the year I turned 18 and ‘opened my eyes’.
What gave you the idea for the storyline of Journey to Jo’burg?
As a white child in South Africa I had, as it were, two mothers. My second mother was a black cook-nanny who saw that I was washed and fed and was always around to talk with me when my own mother was busy. Yet I was brought up to see her as a servant and to call her ‘Mary’. While all white adults had to be addressed as either ‘Mr’ or Mrs’ or ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’, I was brought up calling all black adults by their first names, which was extremely rude.
Traditionally in African society respect is also conveyed through language. That is why, in Journey to Jo’burg Naledi and Tiro call anyone older ‘Mma’ or ‘Rra’. As a child I also simply accepted that the person who looked after me ate her food off a tin plate and that her own three children lived far away. I never really thought what it must be like for them to be without their mother. One day she got a telegram and collapsed in front of me. Two of her small daughters had got diphtheria and died. I remember being sad and shocked – but I still didn’t ask WHY? I could not have caught diphtheria because as a white child I had been inoculated.
It was only some years later that I began to ask the important questions. Journey to Jo’burg is dedicated to the memory of those two young children and their mother. When I was writing, I wanted to explore for myself what it would be like to be separated from your mother when you most needed her. I also wanted to feel in touch with the courage of young black people in South Africa who were determined not to put up with racism and apartheid any longer.
Also, see this Video clip (©Pelican Post)
Why was Journey to Jo’burg banned in South Africa?
I can only guess because the government didn’t give any reasons. One likely reason was that half of the book’s royalties were going to a banned organisation, the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, that was helping the families of political prisoners.
Perhaps another reason was that the apartheid government thought it would encourage readers to ask challenging questions – especially young white South Africans who were being brought up to think that racism and discrimination were normal.
What were your feelings about South Africa’s first democratic elections?
I was very excited that South Africa would get rid of the old racist laws and that Nelson Mandela would be the first democratic President. But getting equality and justice is much harder than changing the laws and there are still enormous differences between rich and poor. In No Turning Back I wrote about a twelve year old boy who runs away to the dangerous streets of Jo’burg where he joins the malunde – streetchildren who live rough and survive, if they are lucky, by their wits. Sipho’s stepfather is unemployed, drinks and is violent. I wanted to show that there are no magic wands.
Why did you move away from South Africa in The Other Side of Truth?
I am interested in children who struggle against injustice and other difficulties wherever they are. Over the years I have learned about Nigeria through friends and some very fine writers. However the soldiers who stole power for many years destroyed much that was good, including people who spoke out against them. After they executed the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, I began to think about a story which involved the children of an outspoken journalist. I wanted to explore how these children would cope with being thrown from a comfortable family in Lagos to becoming – overnight – refugees alone in London.
Is what you write true?
Fiction is a very good way of exploring reality, especially different viewpoints. I tend to do a lot of research before I create a story and characters that are fictional. So my stories are true in the sense that everything that happens could happen. That was why at the beginning of Journey to Jo’burg there are two press cuttings about real children who made incredible journeys to find their mothers.
At the end of Out of Bounds (where each story is set in a different decade) there is a factual time line giving real events and an interested reader can explore connections.
Do you like doing research?
I love it. I often feel that I am being a detective following clues! It is also very challenging for me as new information, ideas, feelings and points of view are revealed. When I was writing Chain of Fire I was not allowed to go to South Africa, so I had to do that research in England. It was as if I was writing a historical novel. In fact a lot of my material had been secretly smuggled out of the country. But later on, I was able to research No Turning Back in the country. I spent six weeks with a theatre director colleague and friend Olusola Oyeleye doing drama and writing workshops in the summer of 1993. We worked with streetchildren as well as young people who were not streetchildren to get a sense of their different lives, experiences and views. I was also helped to think about the mothers of children who run away by a wonderful educator Martha Mokgoko. She ran research workshops with her Speak Barefoot Teachers group in Alexandra, the place near Johannesburg from which my character Sipho runs away. For The Other Side of Truth I carried out most of my research in England by spending a few months finding out about the experiences of refugee children in London.
How do you go about writing?
I start with writing notes on scraps of paper as well as beginning a notebook. This is my ‘first ideas’ stage. When researching, I talk to people, visit places, take photographs, read and so on. Burn My Heart, for instance, came out of two visits to Kenya. The seeds of the novel began to emerge during my first visit. By my second visit, I was much more focused, wanting to see particular landscapes, places and people. By this stage I was already thinking about my plot. Although my plot may change a bit as I write, it is important for me to have a sense of the shape of the whole story and how I intend to tell it. Afterwards comes the actual writing – usually draft after draft! Then editing – by myself and with my editor. I often ask a few people to whom I have spoken while researching if they will read my story and comment. This helps me get a bit of distance from what I’ve written. Altogether, it’s a long slow process – but very satisfying in the end.
What kinds of responses have you had to your work?
Sometimes there are letters from whole classes and sometimes from individuals who want to tell me about what they have thought or felt while reading. Most exciting for me is when I feel my writing has really touched a nerve – as with an eleven year old who wrote a long letter full of questions about injustice and children. She was indignant that a book like Journey to Jo’burg could be banned:
Why shouldn’t young people learn what is really happening on Earth? The quicker we learn the more intelligent and strong willing we shall become. That way we can make peace.
Some letters show strong identification, like this one from a boy who, I feared, might have got himself into deep water like Femi in Web of Lies:
The similarities between the lives of Femi and myself left me wondering. Wondering how two people can be so similar, wondering about how you know so much about what young boys are going through…
I like to hear from adults too and was heartened when a Kenyan writer told me how he had been gripped by Burn My Heart:
… read it in one sitting, so suspenseful was it. I particularly lauded and applauded the way you seemed to make mirror images of conflicting viewpoints on BOTH sides of the divide.
Then there was a librarian who gave The Other Side of Truth to her mother who ‘never had a good word to say’ about refugees. Although her mother wouldn’t talk about the book, she stopped making her negative comments. Something seemed to have changed. However, one of my very favourite responses came from a schoolboy about the same novel: