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Children of violence

After last year’s prize-winning The Other Side of Truth, which explored the lives of Nigerian children exiled in London, for her new short-story collection Naidoo has turned back to South Africa, a country she left as an exile in 1965.

Naidoo has just won the Carnegie medal, Britain’s oldest and most prestigious book award, for The Other Side of Truth —a novel that, as one commentator put it, has a “gut-wrenching” impact on its readers. The Carnegie citation praises the novel’s potential for “extended knowledge capacity”.

In the media flurry that followed the award, Naidoo spoke of her current concerns: the heritage of apartheid, continuing repression in Nigeria and the exploitation of that country’s wealth, and the brutal conditions of life experienced by children in Palestine, where she has recently held a series of creative writing workshops.

And addressing a concern explored in The Other Side of Truth —Britain’s draconian policy towards asylum-seekers (policy the right still sees as being too liberal)—Naidoo challenged Tony Blair to stop paying lip service to changing a “deeply racialised society”.

Each of the seven stories in the book is set in a different decade, covering the span 1948-2000. A timeline at the end of the book provides a chronology — the Suppression of Communism Act; Declaration of the Freedom Charter; Soweto 1976; the release of Nelson Mandela; the Mozambican floods of last year. Each event is cued into the stories that illuminate that history.

In his foreword, Desmond Tutu argues that Naidoo’s record is important “so that we South Africans can never, with any degree of credibility, deny that we could reach such degrees of depravity”. That is what these stories try to ensure.

The first, The Dare, takes an innocuous setting, a farm-cum-guesthouse in the Magaliesberg. A visiting child is set a dare by the farmer’s children — all white — to pick flowers from a fearsome neighbour’s land (shades of To Kill a Mockingbird). As the child sets out, a natural tension develops — expertly built up by Naidoo, as in every story in the book. The tension, though, is twofold: how will the child’s adventure pan out, and then how will this key into whatever relevance in the date allocated to the story, 1948?

The Gun works in the same way, beginning with the most innocent motif, a black child’s admiration for the gun of a visiting white hunter (a Jo’burger who cherishes his “bed-

sitter in the bush”). But this story is cued to 1985, South African army raids and the armed resistance and, without being at all schematic or didactic, Naidoo’s plot leads her child character from his initial nonchalance to a horrifying awareness of the kind of life in which he will now gradually become a participant.

Elsewhere Naidoo provides the bitterest coming-of-age story as, in The Noose, a 10-year-old, on a birthday he’s been craving, witnesses his father reclassified from coloured to black (1955). And such fresh dimensions open up: in One Day, Lily, for example, first, the tracing of the friendship between two white schoolgirls — the parents of one left-liberal, who are despised by the parents of the other — then, the convulsions this friendship and the children’s world view go through with Sharpeville.

The last two stories maintain the tension and deeply moving insights of the others: on the resistance to mixed-race schooling, and on the new (migrant) squatter camps, they bring us up to the present.

I haven’t mentioned that this book is being marketed for children. If you don’t have kids, buy it anyway, and if you do, make sure they lend it to you when they’ve finished.

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