I’ve been reading some phenomenal books about/by South Africans these days, and I wanted to share two recommendations:
Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter by Pamela Jooste was impossible for me to put down. The story of 1960s District Six, with forced removals looming, is narrated by the precocious 10-year-old Lily. This child’s experiences can crush you or charm you, but you will always be compelled. Lily will lose contact with an older cousin she once admired when he joins a gang, but she will also befriend an older Jewish neighbour who likes to listen to opera on a gramophone—he even moves the record player closer to the window, so Lily can hear more clearly.
We are shown stories of families struggling to stay together through Lily’s eyes, though an historically-conscious reader knows the sad fate that must befall Lily’s home in District Six. But this novel will surprise, and there are no forgone conclusions—I still cried on the train as I read the last page.
I was intrigued when I read the author’s forward to this novel, where Jooste says, “I am aware that there may be some people who feel it is the height of impertinence for a white South African to write about the suffering of so-called ‘coloured’ people: but stories come to writers in many and various ways and there are no respecters of person.” She goes on to say that she lived in Cape Town as a child and had a nanny from the city’s Muslim quarter, and her forays into this woman’s home inspired this story.
It reminded me quite a bit of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a page-turning novel set in Jackson, Mississippi, as the American Civil Rights movement is emerging. I was hooked while reading The Help, which Stockett, a white writer, has said was inspired by a Black maid she loved as a child. The Help, however, has been criticized for some serious pitfalls—the dialect of the African-American women it profiles often rings false, and there are some saccharine plot lines that seem to proclaim the young white protagonist as a saviour—and I was expecting some similar problems in Jooste’s work.
Keeping in mind that I am not South African, I still found Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter to ring true. All characters, though imperfect, were drawn with love, and I was never distracted by a contrived plot or a suspect bit of dialogue.
Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter is some of the best fiction I’ve read in a long time, and I recommend it to anyone who loves a good story.
A nonfiction book I devoured this weekend was In the Dark with my Dress on Fire: My Life in Cape Town, London, Havana and Home Again, the autobiography of Blanche La Guma, with Martin Klammer.
Blanche was the wife of author Alex La Guma and worked as an anti-apartheid activist alongside him, while also working as a midwife and nurse for low-income patients (who usually didn't pay their delivery fees, though Blanche never pressed them for money) as well as raising two sons. In the midst of this life of caring for others, Blanche endured police harassment, house raids, her husband's arrests and her own imprisonment.
Blanche was the main bread-winner of the family while Alex was in prison for treason, or under house arrest, unable to work. (And a “banned” person under apartheid could not have writings published, be quoted in a newspaper, or even have their name appear in print—clearly this is more devastating to a writer like Alex La Guma than being placed under house arrest.)
Of that time, she says, I often said to the children, “Twenty-four hours isn’t enough.” I had to see to so many things that I could never finish a day’s work unless I worked late into the night or even early into the next morning. I had to see Alex while he was in prison; I had to see my patients; I had to see my children; and I had to attend to my daily chores… I was always exhausted. I felt like sitting down to have a cup of tea was a waste of time.
A truly amazing spirit shines through these hard times, however—the La Gumas shared a dry wit an irreverent humour that carried them through hard times:
During this time I also received threatening phone calls. The callers, all men, phoned around midnight. “We have just killed your husband,” one said. A few days later another one said, “We have just killed your husband.”
“Oh really?” I answered. “For a second time?”
If you want to read a true account of dedication to the care of others during an oppressive regime and impossible odds, In the Dark with my Dress on Fire is for you.