Friday, 15 June 2018

Remaking Our Stories

Like many children growing up after the Second World War, I learned of the world’s great fairy tales, including that of Cinderella, through the retellings of Andrew Lang. I still treasure my childhood copy of his Blue Fairy Book in a Longmans, Green & Co first edition from 1949. It has a little orange label: People’s Bookshop, 45 Kerk Street, Johannesburg.  The postcard below gives a glimpse of the colonial town of my birth in the 1940s. The little bookshop would have been near here and it was unusual...

The directors of the 'People's Bookshop' were deeply opposed to the apartheid government that came to power in 1948 with racist ideas close to Nazism. One of these directors was Bram Fischer QC. He was from an eminent white Afrikaner family and went on to lead the legal team that defended Nelson Mandela and the 'Rivonia Trialists' who were accused of trying to overthrow the apartheid state. Instead of being sentenced to death, they were given 'life' sentences. Two years later, in 1966, Bram Fischer was himself sentenced to life imprisonment. 

Coming back to mBlue Fairy Book, I imagine that it must have been shipped from England along with much weightier books intended to stir debate and political resistance. While the Foreword in my book says that Andrew Lang and his helpers collected stories “from the four corners of the earth”, their world was essentially confined to the northern hemisphere. They ranged widely across Europe, occasionally straying eastwards to the Middle East and beyond.

The pen and ink illustrations in my edition were by Ben Kutcher, born in Kiev around 1895 but whose family emigrated to the USA in 1902. Here is his Cinderella - the image with which I grew up.

My mother’s grandparents had also emigrated from the Russia Empire but came to England.  From there her parents made the colonial journey to Johannesburg where my mother was born... and where I would be born during the Second World War.  6000 miles away from Europe, the word ‘Race’ appears on my birth certificate, next to which someone wrote ‘European’. It was if a direct link whitewashed out the rest of the continent of Africa and I should think of myself as 'a European'.  Books were very much part of this process of mind-shaping and, like children in the ‘mother country’ Britain, I grew up with books in which the role of black Africans were generally limited to being savages, comic buffoons or faithful servants.   

However, at university, I was fortunate to have my colonial ways of seeing challenged. I began the life-long process of questioning ‘truths’, whether presented by governments, political parties or individuals. I began to understand how our perceptions, feelings and indeed fears are shaped. People like Nelson Mandela and Bram Fischer helped in this process.  But removing blinkers and widening vision is an ongoing journey and one, for me, in which literature has played an important role.   

In Cinderella of the Nile, I retell our earliest known version of the tale, recorded by ancient Greek historians. A girl called Rhodopis, in 6th century BC, is captured in northern Greece and sold into slavery. Herodotus writes about her friendship with a fellow slave Aesop in Samos. I feel sure this great African storyteller’s wisdom would have helped develop her resilience for when she is sold again in Egypt... before her rose-red slipper leads her to the Pharaoh. 

Cinderella of the Nile is stunningly illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian, an artist who lives in Iran. I have my publisher Tiny Owl to thank for bringing us together. How fascinating, I think, that the illustrator, Ben Kutcher, who first introduced me to Cinderella was born on one side of the Caucasus Mountains and now Marjan has worked her magic on the other! 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Snowy World Book Days

I love it when negatives turn to positives. By the time I reached Queen's College yesterday, for a World Book Day visit there was enough snow on London's pavements to reach the leather of my boots. With more snow coming, the school had just been officially closed.  So instead of giving a talk to an audience of two hundred, I had the pleasure of sitting around a table in the library with a small intrepid group who remained. It was a treat to listen to their voices and views in a wide ranging discussion on literature and whether books can alter our ways of seeing, especially in matters of Othering when it comes to 'race', gender and class.

One student asked whether I'd read Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. An avid reader, she had made some links to the same period in Nigeria in The Other Side of TruthAs we shared suggestions of authors to read, it was lovely to find at least four of Mildred D Taylor's novels (including one of my all time favourites Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) on a nearby shelf. World literature should be the inheritance of all our children and not just for World Book Day.

With problems on the trains, I thank the Polish cab driver who drove me 16 miles the next day to Pinner High School. It wasn't snowing early in the morning when he collected me but he said he was used to driving through snow. He also offered to wait until I'd checked that the school was really open. It was. Many students had braved the weather and we had time for a talk, writing workshop and book signing before I set off home. My journey had its adventures but thankfully I returned safely home before a subsequent train that was stuck all night - because of ice on the tracks - just a few miles from my home station. I gather some of those poor souls took to dancing in the aisles to Madonna, trying to keep warm.

Today, I have been snugly at home thanks to a postponed WBD visit.  I have also been reading of the latest unprecedented cuts to Local Authority library services, this time in Northamptonshire. Figures from the House of Commons Library show the total book stock in libraries, nationally, has been reduced by almost a fifth since 2010. How shocking is this?  The number of libraries along with professional librarians being 'lost' across the country is a devastating own goal for us as a society, especially our future generations. Unless there is a massive national wake-up, I fear it will be impossible to turn this huge negative into a positive.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Children's Literature about Refugees : A Catalyst in the Classroom

Those who have read Mary Hoffman's The Colour of Home, illustrated by Karin Littlewood, may recognise the above image. It comes from a double page spread showing the terrifying night when soldiers arrive at young Hassan's house to take his uncle away and the family decide to flee. Any child who has read this book will probably remember Hassan being distraught at having to leave his cat Musa behind... as well as much else.

In her recently published Children's Literature about Refugees: A Catalyst in the Classroom, Dr Julia Hope explores ways in which teachers can engage children with profoundly important questions about refugees.  Her book is based on doctoral research which included observing The Colour of Home being shared in classrooms with 6-9 year olds and The Other Side of Truth  being shared with 10 year olds (the younger end of where the book is often read in schools).

As well as observing lessons, Julia spent time talking with children in small groups, analysing what they wrote, drew and dramatised. She interviewed their teachers and considered their planning. She also organised an author visit for me to speak with the Year 5 children and give them the opportunity to question me. The younger children spoke with Mary Hoffman via Skype. To research how the books came about, Julia separately interviewed Mary, Karen (also illustrator of Baba's Gift ) and myself.

It's obviously fascinating for me as a writer to gain insights into how my book is received.  Many years ago, I conducted doctoral research into white UK teenagers reading novels that challenged perceptions around 'race' and racism, which I published as Through Whose Eyes. Although my conclusions were sobering, I still believe that literature can make a difference and I continued to write fiction. I am my first reader and there is no better way for me to explore pressing matters in our world than to imagine myself as a young person caught up in the thick of things.

Children's Literature about Refugees highlights the importance of listening to children's voices in response to what they are reading. It highlights the importance of the teacher's role in creating the spaces that enable young people to respond, explore perspectives and deepen understanding of a global issue in which ordinary people's lives are disrupted in extraordinary ways. I admired examples of the teachers' ingenuity in incorporating national literacy objectives (often constricting) while engaging the children in creative responses and critical thinking.

By a happy coincidence, the biography of  Harry Rée - my professor of education at the University of York in the mid 1960s - has just been published by the same Institute of Education Press. Entitled Educator Most Extraordinary: The life and achievements of Harry Rée, 1914 - 1991, it's the dedicated work of Jonathan Daube who must have contacted at least a couple of hundred people whose lives were touched by this extraordinary educator. 

Harry, who fought with the French Resistance in the Second World War, was a humanitarian with deep respect for the importance of literature. I think that he would have thought highly of the approaches described by Julia Hope in Children's Literature about Refugees. 

Monday, 7 August 2017

'Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett' papers on their way to University of Sussex

It's a big day when your child leaves home. Of course it's not really the same with a book but the audiotape interviews (inside a shoebox) and some of the papers in assorted files, boxes, and bags stacked here on my sitting room table, have lived with me for 22 years. I should have pulled them out of their drawers, nooks and crannies five years ago when my biography of Neil Aggett, Death of an Idealist, was launched in South Africa. But I felt the book's journey wasn't finished and I wasn't ready to let go. 

However, at last, they are on their way to their new home at the Archive of Resistance Testimony at the University of Sussex.  For the vision that lies behind this relatively new archive, linked to a Centre of Resistance Studies, I am grateful to the vision of Professor Emeritus Rod Kedward and its director Dr Chris Warne. I photographed them today before they set off with my papers and tapes in the boot of Chris's car.

I'm excited that the archive is part of a department of history where, in the future, students as well as researchers may be encouraged to engage with the story of Neil Aggett and his activist comrades in their struggle for social justice. Resistance to injustice is an ongoing story, not just in South Africa. But, like Papa in my novel The Other Side of Truth, I believe in the ultimate power of words that aim to speak truth to power. 

Neil Aggett lost his life in John Vorster Square, police headquarters in Johannesburg early in 1982. Ten years earlier, the young teacher Ahmed Timol 'fell' to his death from the 10th floor of the same notorious building. After a campaign by his family, and a book by his nephew Imtiaz Cajee, the inquest into Timol's death was recently re-opened in Johannesburg, after 46 years. George Bizos, the wonderful human rights lawyer was there, having represented the Timol and Aggett families (as well as many political defendants, including his friend Nelson Mandela). I was extremely touched when I saw this photo of him in the courtroom on the first day of the re-opened Timol inquest. On the desk in front of him are two books: his own No One to Blame and my biography of Neil, for which he wrote the Foreword, beginning with Milan Kundera's words:

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Books continue to make journeys long after they are written. Even though I have finally let go of my papers for Death of an Idealist, this is a new beginning for them too, not an end. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Refugee stories and a new generation of writers

It's Refugee Week.  Indeed every week throughout the year is another week with hundreds of  thousands of refugees struggling to find somewhere safe enough to call home. But in the UK, this is a week of special events to stop and remind those of us lucky enough to have homes.

Monday 19th June also happened to be the 80th Carnegie Medal event and the 60th anniversary of the Kate Greenaway Awards. The ceremony now also celebrates the Amnesty CILIP Honour Awards for a book chosen from each shortlist that engages young readers with human rights. As a former Carnegie winner, I was delighted to be invited and have the chance to meet Zana Fraillon, author of The Bone Sparrow. It is an extraordinary novel about a boy whose young life has been spent inside an immigration detention camp. In this bleakest of settings, we experience the human spirit, freedom of imagination and the power of story.  I ended reading The Bone Sparrow in angry tears. Zana lives in Australia but came to London to receive this hugely deserved Amnesty CILIP Honour Award.   

I was also delighted to meet Francesca Sanna, creator of The Journey which also received an Amnesty CILIP Honour Award. It's about a mother and two children seeking safety after war takes their father. The story is vividly told in the voice of one of the children while the illustrations convey a dramatic and often frightening journey. However, the images and words reflect the children ensconced by their mother's love, determination and hope for their future.

It's seventeen years since an earlier refugee story won the Carnegie. The Other Side of Truth is soon to be released 'A Puffin Book' and I couldn't resist holding my advance copy alongside Francesca's The Journey.  Tonight, before writing this blog, I watched the news and heard Lord Dubs, who arrived in Britain with the Kindertransport in 1938 (the year after the first Carnegie Medal was awarded) reiterate his plea for the UK to offer a home to today's young refugees. "We can't step aside."  Thank goodness there is also a new generation of writers for young people whose books reflect that same spirit.

This year's Carnegie Medal goes to Ruta Sepetys for her historical novel Salt to the Sea, with refugees and a maritime tragedy at its heart. To read more about it and the other award-winning books and their authors, click here . 

Friday, 16 June 2017

The power of reading... and re-reading

Down Second Avenue was one of the books that had a huge impact on me as a student in South Africa in the early 1960s. In his memoir of growing up not too far from where I had grown up in Jo'burg, Es'kia Mphahlele could have been writing about another planet. Until my university years, I had been completely blinkered within apartheid's 'white bubble'. This book, along with Peter Abrahams's Tell Freedom, introduced me to life beyond my blinkers. I was also lucky to have fellow students who helped to slash the bubble. But the invitation of these two fine writers to enter their lives - to see through their eyes and hear their inner voices - exerted a particularly intimate power and a necessary shock.

Es'kia Mphahlele and Peter Abrahams are sadly no longer with us but their work lives on for new generations. My friend Mma-tshepo Grobler recently wrote that she'd bought a copy of Down Second Avenue on a recent trip home to South Africa. (We first met when her brilliant educator mother, Martha Mokgoko, ran an extraordinary workshop on Journey to Jo'burg shortly after it had been 'unbanned' in 1991.) I was keen to know Mma-tshepo's thoughts:

Down Second Avenue was a completely different read the second time around. I read the book when I was about 10 years old I think but my memory of the book was nothing like what I have just read recently. Mphahlele’s retelling of his time growing up in the rural areas and then his subsequent move to Marabastad is the part of his story that I think my childhood self connected with the most. His description of the uncles, Aunt Dora, his gran, his surroundings and everyday life in Marabastad, the police and the neighbours are all elements that were present in my childhood. Two things that struck me whilst reading the book now as an adult are 1) how like Mphahlele, sustained poverty, difficult working conditions, neighbourhood politics were accepted as normal to me as a child and 2) my mind as a 10 year old was definitely not developed enough to understand the gravity and depth of this book. My adult self was completely blown away by the broadness of this book. Mphahlele skillfully addresses, questions and recounts so many themes and issues that we still face as South Africans. What saddened me most after reading was the thought that the politics of poverty still prevail with a vice grip on our people – nothing has changed. 

What an indictment in that last line. It is time for me to re-read Down Second Avenue too.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The artist with his work at the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital!

In my last post, I wrote that Piet Grobler and I were delighted to have our stories - in words and pictures - on display as murals in the new Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital in Johannesburg. Piet has now visited the hospital and says he was thrilled to see that they look really lovely. Here he is in front of a setting sun, while being investigated by one of his cheeky birds! In the picture below he looks relaxed yet, if you ask me, dangerously close to Lion.

May the children who come to the hospital have lots of fun imagining....