Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Parting from papers

For a long time I've known that I must do something about my papers. Over 40 years, files and folders spread through our house. They filled up drawers, boxes under beds and shelves in the 'linen' cupboard. At one time, I stored stacks of papers in our loft until cracks appeared in our ceiling.

Early files, from the mid-1970s, contained papers dealing with bias in children's books. I remember my shock - and anger - at discovering that so many 'non-fiction' books about South Africa, in British schools and libraries, displayed the same narrow viewpoints and racist attitudes that I had experienced as a white child growing up under apartheid. Where were writers who showed what it might be like to be a black child in that society? I began closely examining these books and writing reviews. Why should children in Britain be so misinformed?

Discussions in our anti-apartheid group led to a campaign for local teachers and librarians against "Racism in Educational Media". Correspondence with the Council on Interracial Books For Children in the USA led to sharing guidelines on selecting bias-free books. At the end of the campaign, I couldn't bring myself to throw away the material I had collected. Instead, I embarked on my first non-fiction book Censoring Reality

By now, I had a growing collection of press cuttings about South African children, as well as drafts for a novel that would become Journey to Jo'burg.

There was also an expanding file of minutes of meetings of the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa's education group. Under its dedicated director Ethel de Keyser, the group encouraged me during the writing of my first novel. Ethel valiantly sought a publisher. She persisted despite the rejections (interesting to read now).  Finally successful, she and the group organised the book's launch at London's Africa Centre on 18 March 1985.  Supporting the birth of my first novel was just one of the education group's projects. The minutes reflect the spirit of the era as we challenged complacency about racism and, in particular, about apartheid.  Even when I no longer needed these minutes for reference, I couldn't bring myself to shred them.

Soon after Journey to Jo'burg's publication, letters began to arrive from children. Was the story true?  Were Naledi and Tiro real? Why, how, could this happen? The letters revealed a much wider age range of readers than the publishers originally envisaged. Within a year, the book had crossed the Atlantic and letters began arriving from young Americans.

Some readers revealed aspects of their own identity and experiences, saying whether they were white or black and how they were affected by the story.  Years later, when the book reached an international school in Karachi, students wrote about thinking, for the first time, about the maids from Bangladesh who worked in their homes. Some of these women only saw their own children every couple of years. What must it be like to be their children, living without their mothers?

Fascinated by the intensity of many responses, I decided to keep the letters, putting them away in folders. 30 years on, some continue to arrive. They offer a window onto a multitude of classrooms and children in different places and times, all responding to the same little book and the courage of two children. When it was first published in 1985, Nelson Mandela was locked away, his name largely unknown to young people around the world. Today, it would be hard to imagine a classroom in which Journey to Jo'burg is read where he is not a central reference.  

Other books and projects followed, each with its own trail. The Other Side of Truth has also led to some particularly interesting letters from a fairly wide age range. Correspondence with my editors from around 2000 shifted more to email. When I lost a year's correspondence with my wonderful editor Jane Nissen in a computer crash in 2004, I realised that I should save key correspondence to a file for printing. Unfortunately, good intentions don't always get carried out.

Nevertheless, research, drafts, proofs and other writing matters continued to fill up more folders and files. For a long time, I didn't think about what I would eventually do with them. In 1990, my American publishers, with my permission, had passed on their Jo'burg proofs to the University of Southern Mississippi's de Grummond Children's Literature Collection. More than 20 years later, a professor friend offered an introduction to a well-endowed US university known for buying the papers of African writers.

But I held back. My work was created here in Britain. This is where I came into exile 50 years ago. This is where I was fortunate to join writers from other diasporas, celebrating our international voices, challenging narrow notions of a 'mono-cultural' literary canon. As Michael Rosen used to remind us at NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) conferences, Shakespeare drew on sources far and wide.

In 1996, Elizabeth Hammill and Mary Briggs bravely set up Seven Stories as a charity. They recognised the need for an institution in Britain that would 'collect, champion and celebrate its children's literature'. Their vision was bold and their project faced great challenges, especially funding. Of one thing I was sure: I wanted a home for my work that would accommodate its different 'legs' - creative, activist, academic. The work forms an integral whole.

It is almost 9 years since my first visit to Seven Stories in Newcastle.  I spoke with Sarah Lawrance, their Collections Director, about the possibility of placing my papers there.  Afterwards, the matter returned to the back of my head. Then last summer I visited Seven Stories again, spending some time in their archive section, now across the water in Gateshead. We arranged for Sarah and archivist Kris McKie to visit me in Bournemouth a couple of months later. Would they hesitate, I wondered, when they saw the extent of potential papers? Their view, however, was that my collection would provide a solid foundation on which to develop their material around diversity. That settled it.

Preparing for their next visit to Bournemouth was daunting. They would come with a van! I now needed to sort and sift. I had to decide which items I wanted to keep, even if only until a later date. Were there items my children might want? I would be parting from papers that had been a significant part of my life. I told myself I must complete the task by Christmas. I began the process but there were interruptions.  In the new year, I gave myself a new deadline: mid February 2015.  I wrote to Kris and we agreed a date.

I took myself in hand and set  to work...

By the morning of 12th February, it was over to Kris and Sarah.

By evening...

and the next morning, Friday 13th...

After Sarah and Kris left, the sky unleashed itself, rain pouring down. It rained for most of the day. In the village in South Africa where Naledi and Tiro begin their journey to Jo'burg, rain is a good sign.

Soon after 5.30pm, an email from Sarah popped into my inbox:
'Just to let you know that we got back safely in good time! Your archive is now safely stored - and awaiting unpacking!'


Blogger Dianne Hofmeyr said...

The thought of rain falling down on your papers as they travelled in that van to a safe haven brought up such intense memories of rain beating down on a tin roof or better still the dull thud of rain against a thatched grass roof and the way dust richochets upwards with the first heavy drops in Africa. Felt strangely emotional about your papers finding a new home.

5 May 2015 at 17:03  
Blogger BEVERLEY NAIDOO said...

A little lump in my throat as I read your comment about dust richocheting up, Di. Goodness, deep memories indeed... thank you.

5 May 2015 at 17:22  

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