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Witness Literature – Books for Keeps 258, January 2023

Witness Literature – Books for Keeps 258, January 2023


My piece for Books for Keeps about the vital importance of speaking truth to young readers…

“I was born in colonial South Africa, where my birth certificate, issued in the middle of World War 2, included a category ‘Race’. I was classified ‘European’, although 6000 miles away from Europe. Invisible threads in my schooling and upbringing, including my reading, entwined me mentally. They helped to create a ‘European bubble’ in which most of the ideas, pictures and words were shaped in Europe, of which Britain was a prime component.

Breaking through that bubble in my late teens was a multi-layered process and South African ‘witness literature’ played an important role. I remember the shock of reading Down Second Avenue, the banned childhood autobiography of Es’kia (then ‘Ezekial’) Mphahlele and Tell Freedom, Peter Abrahams’s memoir of youth. How did I not know? Nor have I forgotten the impact of poems personally cyclostyled and handed out by poet Dennis Brutus, then working as a ‘teaboy’ at my university. His campaigning to get South Africa excluded from the Olympics got him arrested, shot, and sent to Robben Island to break stones alongside Nelson Mandela.

The writer whom I thank for the term ‘witness literature’ is South African Nobel Literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer. She has written of being a ‘child of the white minority, blinkered in privilege’ and how she became ‘witness to the unspoken’ and tried to find meaning in what she saw ‘by transforming it into stories based on everyday incidents of ordinary life’. While black writers bore witness to their own experiences, she was an acute observer of apartheid’s inhumanity. In all their stories, I sensed the question: ‘How do we keep humanity alive?’

Gordimer writes of witness literature as ‘a genre of circumstance of time and place’. Far from feeling herself restricted by reality in her fiction, she found herself inspired ‘to create form and use it anew’. Her task was ‘to find how to keep my integrity to the Word, the sacred charge of the writer.’ Papa, journalist father of Sade and Femi in my novel The Other Side of Truth, would agree with her. It’s what gets him into trouble under a military regime: ‘How can I write what’s untrue?’ Moreover, there is no one way in which to rise creatively to the challenge of truth-telling.

Journey to Jo’burg – my first novel published after 20 years in exile in Britain – arose from deep childhood memories and re-imaginings. Its sequel Chain of Fire demanded more intense research to unearth stories of the ethnic cleansing that South Africa’s apartheid government was intent on keeping out of the public eye. I was dependent on the work of human rights’ activists and dedicated journalists. The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, however, signaled new possibilities. As soon as I could return freely to my birth country, I set about getting to know young people of all backgrounds. This included running and taking part in writing and drama workshops, often with deeply insightful educators like Martha Mokgoko of Speak Barefoot Teacher Training Programme and theatre director Olusola Oyeleye. Back in the UK, I began to create No Turning Back, a draft of which I took back to South Africa for further workshops. Ten years later, transforming my short story ‘The Playground’ from Out of Bounds into a play for Polka Theatre, also demanded research and development in situ.

I believe this work in my birth country prepared me to undertake Children of the Stone City, reflecting a society with deep similarities but in a very different setting. When the British Council took me on author visits to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2000 and Amman in 2001, new voices called out to me. Not even young South Africans addressed questions to me so intensely as these young Palestinians. When asked, ‘Is Justice sleeping or is it a dream? If Justice is sleeping, who will wake Justice up?’ I was stunned. I probably simply said we all had to go on trying ‘to wake justice up’.

The question remained with me while I wrote Burn My Heart (2007), my novel about two boys set during the last years of colonial rule in Kenya. It stayed with me while I wrote Death of an Idealist (2012) a biography of my cousin’s son, Neil Aggett, born in colonial Kenya. (A young medical doctor and volunteer trade unionist, Neil had died in the hands of South Africa’s apartheid security police who, despite all evidence, had been absolved. In 2022, forty years later, a new inquest found them guilty.)

But the Palestinian schoolgirl’s deep question still called for a novel of its own. There was a lot I needed to learn. My first notebook is dated March 2013 as I began immersing myself in books by Palestinian and Israeli writers concerned with justice and human rights. I needed to read their witness literature.

Children often form a hidden presence when the focus is on adult experiences. Moreover, as I began thinking about a possible fictional family and story, I knew that I had to find credible threads of hope. Young Palestinian musicians on study visits to the UK convinced me how deeply music mattered in staying resilient. In 2016, I spent a couple of weeks visiting schools and projects in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank with Jehan Helou of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Palestine. Visiting the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem helped crystalize my setting. My decision to name the city in my story as simply ‘The Stone City’, with its inhabitants universalized as ‘Permitteds’ and ‘Nons’, would come later.

I have been very fortunate to be part of a generation of children’s writers, born during or immediately after WW2, whose work I see as that of bearing witness, even if they haven’t used the term themselves. Writers like Jamila Gavin, Elizabeth Laird, Berlie Doherty, Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen and others have all written truth to power in individually creative ways, whether in non-fiction or fiction, including fantasy. Other generations have followed, for example Catherine Johnson, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Alex Wheatle, Sita Brahmachari, Bali Rai, S F Said, A M Dassu and so many more whose writing explores fractures in our fragile world, while seeking hope. In this age of slick fabrication, how can we talk more with young readers about the importance of gleaning the truth?”

Children of the Stone City is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0008471743, £12.99 hbk.

From 16 March, £7.99 pb.