Strangely enough, I only began writing about South Africa once I was no longer living here full time. From the moment we left for the UK 16 years ago, I’ve been writing not about our new life, but about what I’d left behind. It had been a wrench to leave: the first democratic election had just taken place, and we were ready to play our part in the new South Africa. But life is never predictable. Even though I was far from home, that distance proved to be an unexpected advantage when I began to write. Somehow, being away gave me the ability to see South Africa more clearly, and to gain fresh perspective. To write with a clear head, and a settled heart.
And to realise what I’d taken for granted: that growing up in South Africa has been the most profound experience of my life. For the act of writing about SA from abroad allows you to see how truly seductive – but also how conflicted – a place our country is. I knew I wanted to write a novel that shone a light on this; that showed both its brilliance and its shadows.
They say that each one of us has a story to tell.
In my case, the story had been brewing for many years. It began as a seed sown by my Irish grandmother while she was teaching me the piano. Sitting by her side on the piano stool, I learnt more than the names of the notes and where to put my fingers to make a tune. I learnt about her life, and about a journey that she made – in the opposite direction to my own.
In the early 1900s, after a lengthy engagement, my grandmother left her native Ireland and embarked on a new life with my grandfather in Cradock, where Karoo Plainsong is set. The train journey from Cape Town to their new home took several days, and introduced her to the Karoo – that vast, dramatic semi-desert in the centre of South Africa. The starkness of the place, the ironstone mountains, couldn’t have been further from the lush Ireland she’d recently left behind. She used to tell me she would fantasize that around the next corner, or behind that koppie over there… were the green hills of Ireland.
But it wasn’t just the contrast in geography that caught my grandmother’s eye. She was a cultured woman, a music teacher, and possessed – even when I knew her in her eighties – a curious mind. When she began teaching at the local school she asked why black pupils could not be admitted. When she befriended the young black woman who was hired to clean her new home – they were of a similar age – she felt the disapproval of neighbours. It was a sign of things to come. By the time I was born, apartheid divided black from white by law.
If I now look back on my childhood, the seeds for Karoo Plainsong were nurtured there as well: in our garden, while I played with the black children of my parents’ housemaid. I began to realise that copying my grandmother’s early attempts to build bridges was, for my generation, far more difficult: apartheid was now law. My little friends and I could play together today, but tomorrow we would have to go our separate ways. I watched, listened, and stored up the memories of people I wanted to call my friends; people whose characters and imagined lives found their way into Karoo Plainsong.
These, then were the building blocks of the novel. My grandmother’s experiences, and my own. They were the inspiration, and the raw material from which I needed to fashion my story.
Karoo Plainsong is mainly a work of fiction. It is a tale of two imagined journeys: the first being the migration of an Irish family – loosely based on my grandparents – to a remote part of Africa and their attempt to build a new life there. The second, and the major theme of the book, is the story of Ada, their black maid. She must fight to survive in a world that judges her purely by the colour of her skin. Ada has other disadvantages, too: she is illegitimate, and she has never been to school. Despite these handicaps, she learns to read and write, and to play the piano. Music – as you can see from the cover – is central to Karoo Plainsong. For Ada, it is her inspiration, and her refuge, and her passport out of poverty.
But as apartheid tightens its grip, a threatening event occurs in Ada’s life. She is drawn into an illegal relationship and bears a coloured child. She’s forced to flee from her Irish employers, and must carve a life for herself, her child, and her music in a bleak township that squats on the edge of the Karoo.
Will she be able to reconcile one day with those she loves – both black and white?
Will her coloured child be accepted?
Will the country – in parallel – stop fighting and embrace all its peoples?
Karoo Plainsong is a story of love, loss and redemption. It will make you laugh, and it may even make you cry. It took me on a journey, and I hope it will take you on your own journey, too: into the soul of our beautiful but fractured nation, and into the heart of a remarkable woman who holds on for the miracle of a new South Africa.
Barbara will be speaking about her book at Fish Hoek Library on Friday 4 March 2011 at 10am. See http://scenicsouth.co.za//libraries/fish-hoek-library/
Karoo Plainsong is not yet available in bookshops in SA, but can be ordered from Amazon or – preferably – from Barbara’s publisher’s webshop www.troubador.co.uk/shop
“As it turns out, I believe that ordering the book online for home delivery will still work out cheaper than if the book was actually being sold in a bookshop!” – Barbara