A white writer silenced because her transformation should happen offstage

I was part of the last generation to grow up under apartheid. I am a white writer who interrogates my mind and soul about the myths of white superiority and racial difference. I probe. I interrogate. I make myself uncomfortable. I make others uncomfortable.

A year ago I finished writing a book, Lost Where I Belong, a memoir, an extended essay, in which I investigated, over five years, why it was so hard for me to feel truly equal to my fellow South Africans, despite our democracy, our progressive Constitution, the promise of equality.

The story is not just my own. I travel to the rural lands headed up by chiefs, I return to the claustrophobic streets of my suburban Benoni childhood, I walk the streets of downtown Johannesburg, gathering the stories of my fellows, the others, so many of us lost in transformation.

The main thread of the story, though, is mine. The white soul is the one under the lens.

Lost Where I Belong is represented by a respected literary agent. The book has been read and considered by editors at the world’s top publishing houses. Again and again it has been commended for being “beautifully written”. Thank you. But the pretty words and sentences are not enough to switch on the printing presses. Why not?


In the words of one editor: “It’s a book that really took a hold of me at times and nagged at me even when I wasn’t reading it. This is, of course, because what she addresses is so potent and distressing but mainly because of the forensic honesty of her quest and her writing, her willingness to confront the apartheid within, to work through the fact that she is inextricable from the history. The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting. You will appreciate, then, I hope, that it is only with a great deal of personal regret that I’m writing to say that I can’t see a place for Claire’s book here. The very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful.”

The others concur.

There is not a big enough market.

People will not buy it.

We cannot make enough money.

White people will not spend money on something that makes them uncomfortable.

By chance I cross paths with a white, liberal South African struggle-generation journalist. He reads the book in one sitting. The book makes him angry. “Framing it chronologically as the odyssey of a wide-eyed, guilt-stricken innocent seems to me a grave mistake that is bound to limit its appeal and put backs up.

Drawing attention from the start to how little you knew while you were growing up in South Africa, as well as how relatively little time you have spent there since you left, plays not to your strength but to your weakness. Your strength is the perspective your early experiences give you now, 21 years after apartheid, and that, I believe, is the book’s true subject.”

I am not permitted to write about ignorance. I am not permitted to write about a journey from ignorance to awareness. From being closed to being conscious.

Our transformation must happen offstage, when no one is looking, otherwise it is too humiliating, too angering, too shaming.

One should not speak of such things.

Silenced by the capitalist system. This book will not make enough money.

Silenced by the liberal system. We cannot admit to such things.

Silenced by the racist system. We must not break ranks.

Only the victims may speak — because they will make us money. Only the victims must speak so we, the liberal saviours who control the publishing industry, will continue to look good.

Only the victims must speak so the world will stay polarised and all will not be well.

From the blog Unpopularessays.com

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Advertising
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday