Beverley Naidoo: A conversation with students
Beverley Naidoo in 'webcam conversation' with students of Mrs Bertholle at Lycée J.B. de la Salle, Rouen, 14 April 2009
Noemie: First of all we would like to ask you a few questions about your life because we understand it has influenced your writing. You were brought up in South Africa under Apartheid and how did you find the courage to go against everything you were taught and what did you personally do?
Beverley Naidoo: Well, that's an interesting question. I would say that once I realized what was really happening in South Africa and began to see in a new way everything around me, there was only one of two choices. It's like suddenly realizing that bullying is going on. You realize that somebody is abusing their power over somebody else. What do you do? If you do nothing, you become part of the problem because you are then part of the context that allows that bullying to continue. I think for me it was a gradual process of beginning to see things differently. My brother had begun to change before me, and I remember very big arguments that I had with him at first, saying he must be a communist and I defended my parents' conservative views.
But in time I began to have experiences that completely opened my eyes. Those experiences happened when I was at university, not inside the classroom but outside. There were still a few black students at our university although the white government had passed a law to close what they called a white university' to black students but there were still a few black students remaining there when I arrived. My mother never gave me much pocket money and I am very grateful to her for that because it meant that I had to take sandwiches every day to eat - and that wasn't very cool. It also meant that I didn't go into the canteen where most of the white students were, just chatting about this and that, music and parties, whatever. But I went to look for students who were eating sandwiches and I found a group of students on the lawn outside the library. They were white and black students and they were having conversations that blew my mind, conversations about what was happening in the country.
There were contradictions in how I was brought up. I went to a Catholic school where the nuns would tell us how to be good people and to love your neighbour but actually the way neighbour' was defined didn't include black South Africans. My father was Church of England and he would sometimes take me to a service on a Sunday. Again, in the pulpit, the priest would talk about loving your neighbour but he never challenged what was happening under Apartheid. And my mother was Jewish - I cried over what had happened to Anne Frank but I never saw what was happening around me! I never made any connections when I was still at school, but within my upbringing there were values that spoke to me about how one should treat other human beings with respect. The problem was how that society defined who was your community - and in South Africa at that time community was being defined for me as a white community. But there were those other values being spoken about, so it was full of contradictions. Once I realized what was happening, it was no use just me saying, Isn't that terrible? Isn't Apartheid terrible? and doing nothing about it because I knew then that I would continue to be part of the problem. So I had to choose: either I had to be part of it or try to resist it. I'm very glad that I chose the latter.
Gueric: I learned that you were in jail for a couple of weeks and I want to ask you what it was like in jail and, when you were released, if you were scared?
B.N.: Okay, I was in jail for a short while, it was eight weeks, fifty six days. It was under very bad legislation which we called the Ninety-Days Law', where you could be locked up without any charge and kept for the ninety days and those ninety days could be renewed. It was solitary confinement. It was an extraordinary learning experience for me. I was locked up just after people like Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu and Denis Goldberg and Ahmed Kathrada - the people we call the Rivonia trialists - had been sent to jail. Jails were segregated in South Africa, so Nelson Mandela and six others went to Robben Island and one man went to the white section of the jail in Pretoria; that was Denis Goldberg. After that the state was then looking to round up people who were lower down [in supporting the resistance]; I was in that group. I was arrested at the same time as a number of other white women and we were first taken into the white women's section of Pretoria prison. Jail is not, was not, pleasant. It's not meant to be pleasant, but there was segregation and layers in jail in South Africa, so as a white woman prisoner I didn't have the experience of a black woman prisoner. I had a bed for instance; it was a hard bed but I had a bed, whereas black women prisoners were given mats on the floor, and very dirty mats at that. The food that was given to white prisoners was different to the food given to black prisoners. In our section I was one of the youngest. There was one younger person than me, Sheila Weinberg. In our section we came to a decision that we would go on a hunger strike until they charged us. We said, If you've got something against us, charge us, put us in front of a court - that's an important principle - but don't just lock us up without any charges.' And that, again, was a great learning experience for me because I was learning from the more experienced women.
We couldn't talk to each other openly, but at night-time, when the warders went away, we would try and speak over the wired netting above our cells. So there was a certain amount of communication, secret communication, but after ten days they separated us to break the hunger strike and I was then sent to a prison in a place called Krugersdorp and, as far as I know, I was the only white, woman prisoner there at the time. I was on the ground floor and I could look out of my window and see the many black women prisoners. Some were very, very young and they had babies on their backs and I could see the way the warders would scream at them. I wasn't allowed to clean my cell; a black, woman prisoner was made to come in and clean that cell. So you can see that even in prisons the whole system of discrimination was built into it. When I was released, most of the others were charged. The youngest detainee, Sheila Weinberg, was also released. They had something on us, but we were like little fish so they let us go while they charged the others, including my brother.
Although my mother didn't accept the way I saw things, she was very good, because on that first day out I was very disoriented and she said, You're coming to see a play with me. I said, I don't feel like it. She said, No, it's very important that you come. She was really telling me, Don't let them get you down, don't let this break you, even though she didn't agree with our views. I went to the play with her and I remember sitting at this play by Shakespeare in an outdoor theatre - with the stage on a small island in the middle of the Zoo Lake in Johannesburg - and I remember the tears streaming down my face because I was thinking about the people I had left behind while I was watching this play outside. It was bizarre.
Was I scared? Yes, it was scary but while I was inside, I think I was more scared that I might break down and that I would then begin to talk. I wanted to stay very strong, and just say, Well, if you've got something against me, charge me. I did not want to co-operate with them, the Special Branch police. And they used torture on some of the others. They started using torture on white political prisoners around that time. I mean they used torture all the time on black prisoners and when the interrogators came and showed me a statement my brother had made mentioning me, I knew that they must have tortured him. I knew that he would have been like a rock and that to get him to speak it would have involved torture. It turned out they had used the standing torture. They had made him stand on one place, without moving; I think it was something like 69 or 70 hours and then they had given him a break, and then he'd stood again and after about 44 hours he then cracked and had written this statement. My husband too who was in jail - although I didn't know him then - he also experienced the standing torture at that time. They also had many other terrible methods. So it was a test, I suppose, for me about what's really important. I can only say that I was very grateful that they didn't put physical pressure on me because I don't know how I would have stood up to it. I don't know. But what I took from this experience was that South Africa was a prison for most of its people and being put in prison gave me a little bit of insight into what it was like to have your freedom taken away. It still happens in our world that the choices some people have are so limited. So I think that prison must have helped stir my imagination into trying to understand what it was like not to have the freedoms that I had so easily taken for granted.
Agathe: My name is Agathe, it's nice to meet you. We read Journey to Jo'burg and there was a white doctor, in the story, who worked night and day to look after black people. So, is this character based on someone you know, and were there many people like him?
B.N.: Well, writers of fiction generally don't base characters directly on people they know. It's quite dangerous to do that because people might not like how you have shown them and sue you. But I'm observing people all the time and I want my work to be credible and my characters believable. And so yes, there were not many, but there were some white doctors who were very dedicated. And, as it happened, I had a young cousin - who I never met - who was a doctor but who also worked as an unpaid trade unionist in South Africa. In fact, he ended up in jail as a political detainee and had his life taken away by his police interrogators. His name was Neil Aggett and if you look at the end of my book Burn My Heart, there is a short interview in which I mention him. (He's not Mathew' in the novel but he was born into that world of 1950s colonial Kenya, during the Mau Mau resistance to the white settlers.)
But you know, that doctor in Journey to Jo'burg , we get a glimpse of him - just a glimpse - because I was looking at that story from the viewpoint of Naledi and Tiro. For most young black South Africans, if they came into contact with white people they were generally very negative experiences. But I wanted those children just to have that glimpse of that doctor (and I don't even say he's white - you picked up he is white - I speak about him looking very pale) just to show that there were people like that. In another novel, Chain of Fire (a sequel to Journey to Jo'burg) again there's one young white person who is with the Resistance Committee. Most of them were black but there was one white person and I wanted, again, just to show that let's not forget that it was possible for white people to make that choice. You know, there will be white people who will say that I couldn't do anything else [except to go along with apartheid]. It wasn't possible.' But it was possible. It's important to remember that choice is always possible. I don't know whether I went through all these thought processes when I wrote the doctor but it reflects that. There are people who want to try and change a situation and to make a contribution, and that's good. Even if they can't change it, it's good to try.
Elliot: We would like to know if your decision to write a book is always based on a message you want to transmit; that you want children to know what is happening in a certain place?
B.N.: I would say that I do not set out to send you a message because that is the kind of schooling that I had as a child. I was told what to think. The people who were my teachers were kind and they thought they were doing it all for my good to tell me what was in the books that I was studying. I would write down in my notes: this is what the author means, this is the message here. Now writing fiction is much more creative than that. As a writer, I have to go on a journey. When I start I writing, I don't necessarily know what is going to be the end. There is something I want to explore. I put my characters in situations that are dangerous. There are choices and I want to see what they will do, what's possible for them and what's not possible for them. I hope my reader will also go on this journey and, in the process, that my reader will begin exploring what it is like to be those young people who are my main characters. That for me is important, it's important that my readers ask questions like you are doing. That to me is the most important thing; that my readers read creatively and respond creatively and begin to use their imaginations to enter the lives of my characters and go beyond those lives with their own questions for their own journeys. That's what I think I really hope to achieve when I write for young people. Read the entire conversation...
Pour citer cette ressource :
Beverley Naidoo, "Beverley Naidoo: A conversation with students", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2010. Consulté le 01/10/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/beverley-naidoo-a-conversation-with-students