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!