Someone once said “write about what you know” while others countered this by saying “you can write about what you don’t know, but do lots of research.” However, this only works if you combine it with the dictum to “write what you are passionate about.” Still others have said “write the story that only YOU can write.” A quote in my school diary of more than thirty years ago claimed that: “After you hear two eyewitness accounts of the same accident, you start to wonder about history.” And perhaps it is this saying that has shuffled around in my mind for all those years, influencing my historical writing more than others.
I don’t feel qualified to write about those defining moments that other people remember; what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, or when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. While staring up at the moon in 1969, my seven year old imagination fancied that I saw the spaceship leaving the moon in a bright, graceful arc – a fanciful impossibility even before my eyesight became too bad from all the reading of similar fanciful, fantasy events. Not an eyewitness account to be believed on that occasion!
As a South African too young to know who Kennedy was when he died, I was also too young to remember the capture of Nelson Mandela, the so-called Black Pimpernel, on August 5, 1962. However, I do remember exactly what I was doing on the day in 1990 when I heard that the ANC was to be unbanned and Nelson Mandela was to be released from prison after 27 years. But that’s another story...
The historical chapters that unfold in my latest novel are not seen through the eyes of a South African, but through an Australian who is only vaguely aware of the shadowy political machinations that blighted this country back in 1962. His black companion has to remind him that they are not allowed to stay in the same hotel because they are from different race groups. The party they attend one Saturday night in Durban, in which all races eat, drink, laugh, dance and chat together would have been in violation of the country’s stringent segregation laws in 1962. This at least our Australian knows. Marcus looks around and wishes that the South African government could see this particular party, because it might make them realise how easily all races could get along if allowed to mix. What Marcus doesn’t know is that several people at that party were considered political criminals at the time, Nelson Mandela included.
I found that this naive point of view was necessary for the telling of this particular story. Sometimes an outsider’s viewpoint is not a reliable or even an informed one, but it helps to pinpoint the flaws and prejudices that others grow up with and take for granted as part of their lives because they have known no other way in their lifetime.
The wonderful narration by the child protagonist in To Kill A Mockingbird shows us her country’s volatile history in a way that she doesn’t fully understand. This has always struck a chord in me and consequently it is one of my favourite books. She “tells” us the history as it unfolds around her in her small American town; simply narrating to those who read it and we see far more than she realises she is telling – or more correctly, showing – us.
So what possible things could I write about in this, my fourth novel and the first to have any reference to the political history of my country? If I was to write about what I know, then the novel would be bleak since I did not experience at first hand the dramas of growing up in a politically-charged atmosphere, like so many who were caught in the heart of the Soweto Riots, Sharpeville, and other significant events in our country’s history.
What was I passionate about at the time? Well, sadly I was a rather nauseatingly single-minded, quite ill child, passionate only about the loads of fiction (mainly about ballet and drama) that I was able to read while others did the energetic, sporty things that my weak chest couldn’t handle. I was not an eyewitness to most of my country’s significant political events, so I must take other advice, and write the story that only I can write.
Thanks to Google and the many books I have collected over the years, I have been able to concoct an historical tale about an outsider who has the misfortune to fall in love with a South African woman whose plans go awry, and he gets to meet the great Nelson Mandela without even realising who he is. As that other quote warned years ago, eyewitness accounts of the same accident (or incident) make you wonder about history.
Watch this space...