Starting Conversations

I was recently the guest author at the Woman Zone Book Club and I am enjoying the conversations that Off-Centre and Out of Focus is generating around identity, race and belonging. Most of all, I am simply enjoying the conversation!

The seemingly small hurts and humiliations that many of us suffered every day during apartheid, have not been spoken about. We are urged to get over apartheid and embrace the “rainbow nation”. Ignoring our experiences minimises the trauma that we lived through. Until we examine the past and make peace with it, we cannot move forward and learn to live together in a post-apartheid society as simply human. And we cannot afford to forgo the opportunity to do so while those who lived through that period are still alive to share their memories and experiences with us.

The words of American writer, musician and academic, Julius Lester (1939-2018), express so profoundly the importance of acknowledging the lived experiences of growing up in a marginalised and oppressed community. He says,

History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.

My book was always intended to be about starting conversations, about saying, “this is how it was for me, how was it for you?”

When we engage with each other in a sincere attempt to understand the other, it is possible that it will lead to a place beyond the stories of different cultures, beyond stereotypes and prejudices, to acknowledge and embrace our multiple stories. By connecting the lines between all of our stories, we may recognise our common humanity, we may break down the walls that were constructed around us to keep us separate. Perhaps it will lead to a fusion of ideas that may result in a new way of expression, a new story, and the acceptance of diverse points of view. Only then may we learn to be free.  Off-Centre and Out of Focus.

You can find Off-Centre and Out of Focus: Growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa at The Book Lounge, Clarke’s Bookshop, Exclusives Books, Wordsworth Books, at the District Six Museum shop and online from

You can listen to the Woman Zone Stories MEET THE AUTHOR podcast here.

History and Heritage lost narratives

Straining Against the Archives

A gathering was recently held in Cape Town to read my essay, Unpick, Restitch: Doilies, Medorahs and Labouring Plants. The essay is the first in the Fieldguides for a Preternaturalist series of chapbooks, within the project, Nothing of Importance Occurred: Recuperating a Herball for a 17th Century Enslaved Angolan Midwife at the Cape. The project was inititated by South African artist, Wendy Morris, whose enslaved ancestor, Maaij Claesje of Angola, was a midwife in the Company slave lodge in Cape Town.

My writing is about trying to piece together a narrative of who I am, where I come from, and where I belong. In order to recuperate these erased narratives, I have drawn from an ordinary archive – oral history, family photos and objects like my grandmother’s scarves and the doilies she crocheted. The objects that our grandparents found important to make, keep and pass down to us, give us a sense of belonging. The things that they touched and used, hold a history that fills in the blanks in the official archives and challenge the dominant narratives that would have us believe that we were less-than.

During my research, I came across the Flower of Maryam, the labouring plant of the essay title. The plant, which was usually brought back by pilgrims from Mecca in its dried state, had been used as a visual tool during labour and was passed down from one generation of women to the next. At the start of our programme I immersed the plant in a bowl of water to help us keep track of time.

After Wendy gave an overview of the larger project, story-teller and poet, Philippa Kabali Kagwa, led us into the reading with an invocation. It was a privilege to hear my essay read in a multitude of voices that cut across any divisions of colour, religion, gender or age, and a testimony to the power of story to connect us. By the time our gathering came to a close, the Flower of Maryam had opened, a powerful representation of rebirth, community memory and women’s agencies over their bodies.

The gathering was organised by Deep Histories, Fragile Memories, a research group at LUCA School of Arts, Brussels, and the Cape Town Museum.