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An interview with Beverley Naidoo

Par Beverley Naidoo, Clifford Armion : Professeur agrégé d'anglais - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 01/06/2010

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Un entretien accordé à La Clé des langues par Beverley Naidoo suite à son déplacement dans l'académie de Rouen.

© Photo by Linda Brownlee


Addressing young readers

Clifford Armion: First of all I would like to ask you why you chose to address young readers. You seem to enjoy meeting young people and telling them about the importance of justice and tolerance. Is that consistent with your approach to novel writing?

Beverley Naidoo: One reason is that having young protagonists as central characters allows me to ask interesting questions about how the world is. Another is that it requires me to make a leap of imagination: to imagine how would it be if I were looking at a particular situation through the lens of a young person. My main characters are generally quite feisty and observant, allowing questions to come up quite naturally, hopefully not in a didactic way.  My young people question this world. They hear what people say, what adults tell them about the world and how it should be. They experience quite a lot of moralising from adults, and yet they look at it and see it as it is. I also write the kind of books that I wish I could have had as a young white person growing up in South Africa under apartheid.  Most of the books that I read when young came from Europe, reflecting a narrow colonial perspective.  I was not opened up to the reality of the lives of my black compatriots until much later, when I began reading books at the age of eighteen that suddenly took me into another reality about which I had no knowledge. I remember reading Down Second Avenue by Es'kia Mphahlele (then known as Ezekiel Mphahlele). He was writing about his childhood in Marabastad. It could have been set on another planet. It was a shock to me. Writers invite you into their world and, when I entered his world, I thought: this is down the road from where I live in Johannesburg and yet I know nothing about this. The literature that came to me as a young person growing up in the nineteen-forties and fifties was very limited in its cultural scope. I suspect the only book that said to me this is real life' was The Diary of Anne Frank.  I cried and cried, thinking that if I had been born in Europe it would have been my fate too, because my mother was Jewish and her family came out of Russia. So there was I, this white child in South Africa identifying with Anne Frank and that horrifying experience all those thousands of miles away. Yet I was in no way connecting with and responding to the terrible experiences of young black South Africans in my own country. I love books. I've always loved stories and the power of stories.  I loved many of the stories that I read as a young person, but they didn't open me up to the reality of the world around me. I think that much of my writing has been exploring life experiences of young people with different backgrounds to mine, and using my imagination to counter what had been that invisible repression of imagination as a child; to defy the barriers to which I and other children brought up in colonial times were conditioned in our youth.

Sources of inspiration

C.A.: Apart from your own childhood experiences, what were your sources of inspiration for the characters and the story of The Other Side of Truth?

B.N.: I began to think about this novel towards the end of 1997. South Africa had experienced its first democratic elections in 1994. I had been living in England for thirty years by then, most of that time in exile, only being able to return freely to South Africa after Nelson Mandela's release from jail.  In my writing, I had been engaged with exploring universal themes - for example the impact of oppression on individuals and families, personal courage and so on -  in a South African setting.  But I now felt it was time to explore stories in the country where I had been living in for the last thirty years. Immediately I knew that my main characters would be young refugees. Although I did not consciously set out to explore what had been my own experience of exile, I think it does come through in the way Sade's mind involuntarily returns to her home, family, country. Of course my experience as a young white South African coming to England was not the same as if I had been black. I did not experience racism.  I did not experience that element of hostility and rejection. No one told me that I was not entitled to belong in this society.  But although I could merge into British society, nevertheless there were enormous disconnections for me. I recall sometimes feeling, particularly in the early days, how my body was in England but my head was in South Africa. I think that unconsciously in the novel I was exploring some of that disconnection. At a more conscious level, when I knew I would write about refugees, I made the decision pretty early on that they would be Nigerian refugees. When I had come to Britain in the mid-nineteen-sixties, I had gone to the University of York where I met a Nigerian academic who was one of the few people who understood about where I had come from. We talked at length about apartheid and South Africa. It was the beginning of what became a family friendship. At the time we shared our idealism and I also learnt a lot about Nigeria. Years later, as South Africa was experiencing its first semi-miraculous democratic elections, there was an enormous sadness that Nigeria was in the grip of yet another dictatorship. I was aware of stories coming out of Nigeria. In fact my friend who had returned there with his family had gone into politics for a brief period, during which time he had been the subject of an assassination attempt. Fortunately he had been away from his house and survived.  Also, the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa had been executed by General Sani Abacha's regime at the end of November 1995. So a whole range of themes began to open up. What if I wrote about the children of a writer, an outspoken writer? This is another theme that interested me.  As adults, we make decisions, and our children live with the consequences of those decisions. As adults, we choose, and our children follow in the wake of those choices. I wanted to explore the contradictions that would arise from this situation. The father, a writer who takes a brave decision to write the truth as he sees it, pays a very high price for this with his wife being killed. But what about the consequences for his children? What if they are catapulted out of their own society into seeking asylum in Britain which had once asserted its colonial power over Nigeria? – I thought that this story would raise all sorts of interesting and universal questions. How do we keep true to our values when the price is so high?  Seeing this drama through the eyes of children, these questions would inevitably be layered within the story.


C.A.: In The Other Side of Truth, you draw a vivid portrait of London through a number of cultural landmarks such as Victoria Station, the dark alleys of London, the counter of a corner shop... Could you tell me about your description of Nigeria and the elements you chose to successfully involve your readers in a realistic African background?

B.N.: My own direct experience of Nigeria was limited to a very remarkable brief weekend. It was in 1998.  The dictator General Sani Abacha was still alive and in power. I was working in Ghana at a British Council workshop and my friends who were then in Lagos said Why don't you come?'  So I routed my return via Lagos. It was just a weekend but it was extraordinary. There are times when your mind is so open that you're just absorbing. My mind was like a camera. It knew it had just one weekend to absorb impressions, sights, sounds, feelings, as much as it could. Already the story was beginning to form. I was at the beginning of writing the book. There were places that I knew I wanted to see. There were places my friends also wanted to show me.  Their family is one where children speak English and Yoruba, can access the world, but they are also very rooted in their country. My friends are also deeply, deeply moral. So I felt confident that I could create a fictional family drawing on my experiences combined with a lot of research.

Language and violence

C.A.: I would like to focus on the first page of the novel and the way violence is associated to language and the absence of language. When the gunshots are heard, Sade's school things fall down. Her bag topples from the bed, spilling books, pen and pencil on the floor. Could you tell me more about how violence and language articulate within the novel?

B.N.:  When I first thought about my opening scene, I envisaged Sade seeing her mother being killed.  But as I wrote the opening and imagined the experience, I was drawn to her hearing the gunshots while she was busy with her everyday task of preparing her school bag.  That left more space for imagination and the sounds would be in her head forever.  Incidentally, a teacher who had been reading my novel Burn My Heart with his class - it's set in colonial Kenya in the 1950s - recently pointed out to me that I had conveyed a brief torture scene entirely through sounds heard by a teenage boy.  It wasn't something that I did consciously but, again, I would say that sounds affect us at a deep primal level. Language is about making and sharing meaning. While Sade battles with her violent nightmares and the disruption of everything that she has known, she carries the voice of her mother in her head in the form of Mama's favourite proverbs.  It is Sade's love of words and her ability to communicate that ultimately save her.  Femi, on the other hand, does not know how to articulate his pain.  It is suppressed and buried inside him, almost explosively so. That is why I needed to write my sequel Web of Lies. I wanted to get beneath his frequently silent exterior and dig down into what was happening inside him. Femi's isolation from those who love him makes him vulnerable, especially in the harsh environment of south London gangs and other young people who feel alienated from society.  If we cannot use language to communicate and share our thoughts and feelings when under pressure, we are lost. Perhaps we can also reflect on the ancient story of Leopard and Tortoise - that Papa tells his children in the chapter Dare to Tell' - in this matter of violence and language. Faced with the certainty of a violent death, does Tortoise not communicate a more inspiring story that will be heard long afterwards?

South Africa and England

C.A.: You know that scholars are very keen on classifying' writers. After living so long in England, do you still consider yourself as a South African writer?

B.N.:  I don't really like to be classified.  I remain strongly connected to my birth-country South Africa, but I am also other'. Maybe this is also a condition for being the kind of writer that I am: feeling a sense of otherness wherever I am, yet also sensing my connections. I feel both insider' and outsider' both in South Africa and in Britain, despite living in England for two thirds of my life.  When you think of apartheid's classification of an entire population in terms of so-called race',  I grew up in one of the most rigidly classified societies in the world.  For me, writing has been a way of crossing boundaries and defying borders. It is a means of liberation.

Extrait pour la classe

A prescient letter from Ken Saro-Wiwa, published in the Mail&Guardian in May 1995

A YEAR has gone by since I was rudely roused from my bed and clamped into detention. Sixty-five days in chains, weeks of starvation, months of mental torture and, recently, the rides in a steaming, airless Black Maria to appear before a kangaroo court, dubbed a special military tribunal, where the proceedings leave no doubt that the judgment has been written in advance. And a sentence of death against which there is no appeal is a certainty.

Fearful odds? Hardly. The men who ordain and supervise this show of shame, this tragic charade, are frightened by the word, the power of ideas, the power of the pen; by the demands of social justice and the rights of man. Nor do they have a sense of history. They are so scared of the power of the word, that they do not read. And that is their funeral.

When, after years of writing, I decided to take the word to the streets to mobilise the Ogoni people, and empower them to protest against the devastation of their environment by Shell, and their denigration and dehumanisation by Nigeria's military dictators, I had no doubt where it could end. This knowledge has given me strength, courage and cheer - and psychological advantage over my tormentors.

Only yesterday, the Spirit of Ogoni magicked into my cell a lovely poem by Jack Mapanje, the veteran of Kamuzu Banda's jails: four years without charge. I had met Jack in Potsdam in person in 1992 and wondered how he had survived it all.

Writing from Leeds University, his poem urged me to wear the armour of humour. The note at the end was also signed by Chengerai Hove, the award-winning Zimbabwean novelist. How wonderful to know how many fine men, the best brains, care for one's distress.

Ultimately the fault lies at the door of the British government. It is the British government which supplies arms and credit to the military dictators of Nigeria, knowing full well that all such arms will only be used against innocent, unarmed citizens.

It is the British government which makes noises about democracy in Nigeria and Africa but supports military dictators to the hilt. It is the British government which supports the rape and devastation of the environment by a valued, tax-paying, labour-employing organisation like shell. I lay my travails, the destruction of the Ogoni and other peoples in the Niger delta, at the door of the British government.

Ultimately, the decision is for the British people, the electorate, to stop this grand deceit, this double standard, which has lengthened the African nightmare and denigrates humanity.

Whether I live or die is immaterial. It is enough to know that there are people who commit time, money and energy to fight this one evil among so many others predominating worldwide. If they do not succeed today, they will succeed tomorrow. We must keep on striving to make the world a better place for all of mankind - each one contributing his bit, in his or her own way.

I salute you all. Ken Saro-Wiwa, Military Hospital, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Beverley Naidoo, Clifford Armion, "An interview with Beverley Naidoo", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2010. Consulté le 22/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/an-interview-with-beverley-naidoo