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I grew up in apartheid South Africa, accepting the world as presented to me in my whites-only school and community. When my older brother began to question our deeply racialised and racist existence, I initially dismissed his challenges. When I entered university, the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and most organisations that opposed apartheid had been banned. Nelson Mandela and various activists had gone ‘underground’. The University of the Witwatersrand had been ordered to close its doors to black students. Somehow, a few black students had managed to get special permission to complete courses. A friend introduced me to a small group of black and white students who met on the lawn outside the library to debate intensely what was happening in the country. Gradually I shed my blinkers.
It was not a time for sitting on the fence. Choices had to be made. Two years later, detention without trial and solitary confinement made me understand more fully how the country felt like a vast prison for most of its people. After I left South Africa the following year in 1965, I had to deal with my sense of disconnection. I was physically in England but my head was in South Africa, imagining my brother and others locked away in prison. The resistance had, for the time being, been smashed. I immersed myself in literature from the African continent, some of it banned back home. Apartheid aimed to segregate us, physically, intellectually, emotionally. But here were writers inviting me to cross boundaries into their particular worlds, inviting me to engage with them.
I began writing in exile fifteen years later. In retrospect I can see that all my writing has involved journeys of one kind or another. My first small novel Journey to Jo’burg arose out of a question: How could I show my children, born in exile, as well as other readers, young and old, something of the terrible reality of a system that forced millions of black children to live apart from their parents? Although the book was banned in South Africa until the year after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, it travelled in English, and in translation, around the world. Almost everywhere, the most common question that it has stirred in readers has been: ‘Is your story true?’ Except amongst young Palestinians who, tragically, identify their current lives with the young black South Africans who pitted themselves against apartheid’s mighty tanks. Instead they ask me unanswerable questions like: ‘Is justice sleeping or is it a dream? If justice is sleeping, who will wake justice up?’
Much of my writing involves engagement with reality that leads me on to imagined experience. I tend to do a lot of research after which I have to release myself from all my documentation in order to give myself space to allow the material to be transformed. Each time there is an aesthetic quest to find the shape and form that illuminate the moral dilemmas, the questions at the core. It is this aesthetic, creative quest that creates space for my imagination. When writing, I make a journey across the fence into the lives of characters at very particular points in time and place. I frequently take myself into the lives and perspectives of children and adults that I wasn’t – and in the South African context the most pressing challenge has been for me to cross our racialised borders.
My concern with this theme of crossing boundaries, especially of racialised identities, led me out of fiction writing for three years into trying to look dispassionately at the potential impact of literature in this area. I undertook a doctoral research project in which a class of white British 13 year olds read literature for a year that challenged them to imagine themselves into very different situations and identities. I wanted to see from their responses what evidence I could find of empathy, of changing perceptions and, ultimately, of any critical thinking about their own society. Would engaging in fictional witness, encourage greater awareness in relation to their own context? My findings were both illuminating and sobering. I wrote about the experience in a book called Through Whose Eyes? Exploring racism: reader, text and context.
Fortunately, three years studying the ‘filters’ that readers bring to texts did not diminish my own drive to continue writing fiction. Stories are a way of making sense, first of all for myself, and then for others. I believe that if a writer can find the truths in a specific human situation, the meaning will carry across time, place, at least to some readers if not to all.
Read more... The Other Side of Truth
Picture:© Beverley Naidoo
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