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Don't Fence Me In

An Interview with Beverley Naidoo

by Bridget Zinn

photo of Beverley Naidoo Winner of numerous prestigious international awards, including the Carnegie Medal and the Jane Addams Peace Association Book Award, Beverly Naidoo’s books draw light to an issue close to her heart – racism in Africa.

As a member of the privileged class in South Africa growing up, Naidoo didn’t question the established order of her world as a child. Segregation was such an intrinsic part of her life that she didn’t question why her black nanny didn’t live with her own children or why she ate off of a different plate. She accepted the idea that white people were superior and she had comfort and freedoms that black people didn’t.

It wasn’t until she was older that she realized these ideas were false and grew angry at the segregation around her. Passionate about this subject she began her writing journey that’s resulted in over half a dozen novels, several plays, picture books, and non-fiction books exploring racial injustice.

Ms. Naidoo spoke on the UW-Madison campus on November 15, 2007. Her speech was titled "Don't Fence Me In: Border Crossings as Writer and Reader."

BZ: Your books span several decades yet they have a clear link in subject matter: racism and Africa -- how has your writing evolved over the years?

BN: I see my novels, stories and plays primarily in terms of who my characters are and how they respond to their different challenges. As a white South African child, brought up under apartheid, I was denied the possibility of exploring and imagining the world of my black compatriots or indeed black
people anywhere. I think this was pretty much the same for most white children around the world at the time. We all inherited the history of Europe's expansion and dispossession of others through colonialism, empire, slavery and so on. Yet during my childhood - and that of most white children in Europe and in America, Africa, Australia or wherever there had been colonies - this was not questioned but made to seem normal. There were great silences. Black characters were invisible in most stories and where they
existed they were usually depicted as savages, comic buffoons or, at best, faithful servants. What stupendous denial of humanity! What denial of stories!

Writing for me is a journey. When I set out on a new writing project, it is because something is there that I want to explore, boundaries that I want to cross. The racism and hostility that some of my characters face in my earlier South African settings and also in my later 'London novels' - The Other Side of Truth and Web of Lies - are challenging aspects of having to live in racialised societies. Racism spreads in society, affecting the perceptions of all who live in it, unless resisted. In the last two novels, Sade and Femi also experience comments about being Africans from young people of Caribbean origin, who themselves will have experienced being marginalized in British society. As Femi is drawn into a gang in Web of Lies, I can feel how desperate he is to belong, to feel more secure. So my characters' concerns are just as much about friendship, family, trust, love, security.

I think a thread that runs through my work is a sense of how social and political histories - whether visible or hidden - impact on individual lives. I believe that writers from the African continent know that their characters are umbilically connected to a wider society. Whatever the focus on a character's personal life and relationships, that sense of society is always present. In my latest novel, Burn My Heart [published by Penguin in the UK and to be published by HarperCollins USA in 2009], I have placed two boys in 1950s colonial Kenya where the grandfather of one dispossessed the grandfather of the other. While personality-wise Mathew and Mugo are attracted to each other, the histories they have inherited cannot be ignored especially at a time when the growing resistance to British colonial rule by the Mau Mau has resulted in a State of Emergency. Each boy is placed under tremendous pressure and the novel explores what happens.

BZ: On your website you describe your childhood of privilege in South Africa, not realizing the suffering of apartheid that was around you, and your desire as an adult to explore this issue in children's books. At what point did you know this was something you needed to do?

BN: In 1981, when a librarian friend in London sent me a non-fiction book on South Africa to review, I was prompted to investigate further what children in Britain were reading about my birth country. By the 1980s hundreds of black children had been killed in Soweto and thousands imprisoned when they challenged apartheid. So I was shocked to find that British children were being given books fairly similar to what I would have had as a child. My local anti-apartheid group was soon involved in wider research and a campaign. Most of the books we examined completely misrepresented South Africa. Some were overtly racist. For example, "The Kung Bushmen have a tiny brain. Their language sounds more like the chatter of baboons than the talk of men." This was from Let's Visit South Africa, one of the most widely
stocked books. Others were covertly racist. They omitted to tell readers about apartheid or relegated it to a final page - as if apartheid didn't affect every single aspect of life for everyone in the country. Finally,
there was a growing category of books that purveyed racist perceptions rather unconsciously. I wrote up the research in a booklet called Censoring Reality but the situation still had to be addressed. So I joined the Education Committee of the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, an organisation banned in South Africa for its support of political prisoners and their families.

On the Education Committee we all agreed that young readers needed, first and foremost, a work of fiction to engage their hearts as well as their heads. When the question was asked 'Who knows a children's author, preferably a famous one?' I raised my hand. 'Who do you know?' (a blunt committee-probe) 'I don't... but there's a story I want to tell.' 'Have you ever written for children before?' (much blunter!) 'No, but I want to try!' Fortunately I was given 3 months to produce a first draft. I got up every morning at 4 am and worked until 6am before my children, aged six and ten, awoke. That was the beginning of Journey to Jo'burg. I was fortunate to have the Education Committee behind me when the first rejections came from UK publishers. I was told I had a mismatch between the simplicity of the text and the ideas within the story. However, I had no intention of making the language more complex. I wanted as wide a readership as possible. Eventually an education publisher published it for high school students who didn't have much reading stamina. But it soon won an award and found its way rapidly into primary schools and into a trade edition. I sent a copy myself to an editor at Harper in the US and had a response within a week. The little book's global journey had begun except, of course, into South Africa where it was banned.

BZ: Your wonderful non-fiction title Through Whose Eyes? explores racism that exists in children's books. Are there books you've found that fight racism that you think are inspiring?

BN: I was very inspired and excited by fiction for young people by African American writers that emerged after the Civil Rights movement. It was like the bursting of a dammed-up river. I'm thinking of writers like Julius Lester, Rosa Guy, Virginia Hamilton, Mildred D Taylor... Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of my all-time favourites and when she brought out her 'prequel' The Land, it kept disappearing from my bedside table to my husband's!

BZ: When you're writing, what readers are you thinking about? The kids who are in the difficult situations you describe or the children who don't realize what the racial situation is?

BN: I don't think of specific readers. I am my first reader. Perhaps I am writing the books that I wish I could have read as a young person. I want the writing to grip me, both heart and head. But I certainly get a range of letters: from those readers who say 'I never knew...' to those who tell me 'Something like that happened to me...'

BZ: It sounds like you're going back to South Africa this year to research your next book. Can you give us a hint as to what it's going to be about?

BN: This year I spent most of April in South Africa and ran drama and writing workshops in a number of urban and rural schools. I wanted to spend time with young people in these very different environments and to get a feel for their current concerns. I went with the seeds of a novel but it usually takes me quite a while to prepare the soil and it will certainly be a while before I see what grows!


Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter, 2007, Number 3, with permission of Bridget Zinn and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2000 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.

 


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