Long journey out of darkness

20th July 2001 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan talks to Beverley Naidoo (right), who has won the Carnegie Medal for her children's novel about asylum seekers, The Other Side of Truth, and, overleaf, 12-year-old Zora Laattoe explains why the South African author's books are so special to her.

Fortunately, Beverley Naidoo is the sort of person who puts her hand up in meetings. In the early 1980s, the education committee of the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, of which Naidoo was a member, saw the need for a powerful work of fiction to tell young readers about the reality of growing up under apartheid. Naidoo took the opportunity that was to launch her literary career. "We said, 'let's go for the heart and hope the mind will follow'. Someone asked if anyone knew a writer of children's books whom we could approach. I said that I didn't but that I had a story I wanted to tell."

The book that followed, Journey to Jo'burg, celebrated a second launch last year, at the South African embassy (having been banned under the old regime on publication in 1985). It is the tale of Tiro and Naledi's arduous journey to bring their mother home from the white suburb where she works because their baby sister is dying. The story is that of Mma Sabate, the African maid in the author's parents' home who brought her up, having left her own children with relatives.

Journey to Jo'burg was written in chunks between 4am and 6am at a time when Naidoo had young children herself, and a full-time job teaching pupils with severe literacy difficulties. "They gave me three months before they started looking for a real children's writer. The education committee became my support group, encouraging me through drafts until I felt I was ready." Royalties from Journey to Jo'burg now go to the Canon Collins Educational Trust, which carries on the committee's work in South Africa.

Its author spends all her time writing, lecturing and visiting schools, still spurred by burning anger at injustice, particularly its effects on children; by a conviction that something can be done about it and that young people are the answer. Regular reports of tireless efforts in this cause reach The TES: meetings with young Palestinians on the West Bank (Friday magazine, May 19, 2000); arts projects linking pupils in Dorset, where she was a curriculum adviser on English and cultural diversity for five years, with those in post-apartheid South Africa; bravura performances in classrooms and at school book weeks.

She has many more stories to tell, and her books tell rather than show, pulling readers straight to the emotional centre of their child characters' struggle to make a difference in a world not of their making. They are a gift for teachers because the pages can instantly be brought to life in discussion and role-play. The mind follows the heart, as intended.

The Other Side of Truth, which won the Carnegie Medal last week, is about abuse of human rights in Nigeria - it is set soon after the execution in 1995 of activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa - and in Britain, focusing on the contemporary predicaments of asylum seekers through the eyes of 12-year-old Sade and her younger brother Femi. It is also about the consequences for children whose parents decide to make a stand for their beliefs.

Sade and Femi are smuggled to supposed safety in London after their mother is killed in Lagos as a warning to their father, an outspoken journalist. But they find themselves adrift on the streets. Bright children who have led a sheltered life in a loving middle-class family, they are reduced to nonentity status here, in a system that assumes they are devious vagrants, devoid of intelligence and feeling.

Researching the book four years ago in refugee "hotels" and detention centres left the author "appalled". She said as she collected her medal last week: " I believe I saw only the tip of the iceberg and that since then, politicians have vied with each other on how to thicken the ice."

Naidoo reflects her characters' attempts to make sense of the bewildering stream of adults who cross their path through thumbnail character studies. The names Sade gives these walk-on figures combine elements from popular culture and traditional stories of the children's homeland. There's Darth Vader of the Alley, who steals their bag; Video Man, who hands them over to the police; Robert Hair-Tale, the emergency social worker; Hawk Lady, who fingerprints them at the asylum screening unit (the author's voice can be heard at this point in the angry lawyer who asks: "What other government department makes people queue outside?"); and Sand Dune Lady in the waiting room. Finally, Mr Seven O'Clock News (modelled on reporter Jon Snow) listens to their story and exerts pressure to help free their father from a detention centre.

Alongside the story of the far-reaching consequences of the father's commitment to truth (which results in the children living a lie) is the tale of Sade's brush with bullying at her London school, and her dilemma as a sound motive (protecting her brother) leads her temporarily to comply with the bullies rather than take the more "truthful" course of exposing them. Meanwhile, her nightmare visions of events in Nigeria (and some happy memories) add another strand to the narrative.

The Other Side of Truth was a surprise winner of the Carnegie Medal, the Library Association's award for the most outstanding book published in 2000, beating Philip Pullman's hotly tipped The Amber Spyglass (the concluding volume in his Dark Materials trilogy).

The Carnegie is not a prize for the book that fuels the most discussion in classrooms on a burning issue - if it were, The Other Side of Truth would still have won - but the judges were impressed by its strong characters and its ability to tell its heart-breaking story without being didactic. "This book has everything," concluded chairman of judges Sarah Wilkie.

Naidoo dedicated the first edition of the novel to "all young people who wish to know more". To the second edition, she has added "in memory of Damilola Taylor" - news broke of the Nigerian boy's murder in south London last year as the novel was receiving a Smarties Book Prize - and "to other young people and their families who seek new lives in new countries".

While she was seeking a publisher for Journey to Jo'burg, she was told her text was too simple for its subject matter. She kept the 13-year-olds she once taught in remedial classes in mind as she stuck to her guns; her "young people who wish to know more" include those who cannot or will not tackle doorstopper novels. The books that followed Journey to Jo'burg - the sequel, Chain of Fire (1989), in which the violent conflict in South Africa shifts from the periphery to the centre of the narrative, and No Turning Back (1995), which drew on work with South African pupils and teachers, and focused on the hardship of street children in the immediate post-apartheid period - are pitched slightly older than Journey to Jo'burg, but there is as little apparent artifice as possible between the reader and the story.

Her collection of short stories, Out of Bounds, published last month to mark the 25th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, appeals to a wide child and adult readership. One story per decade between 1948 and the present day introduce children whose lives are changed at key moments in the half-century of the apartheid regime and beyond, some of which were signposts in the author's own life. When 69 Africans were killed in a protest against passbooks at Sharpeville post office in 1960 and a state of emergency was declared, she was in her final year at a whites-only convent school in Johannesburg, where, as in her story "One Day, Lily, One Day", staff fuelled hysteria with rumours of riots by "natives". Naidoo says: "We had been told never to run, and here were the nuns running, saying that black people were coming to Johannesburg to attack us. Meanwhile, there was a massacre in Sharpeville, a few miles down the road. It must have been in my parents' newspaper but it didn't impinge on me."

Her parents, both born in South Africa (her grandparents were economic migrants from Russia and the UK), worked in the theatre. "There was a certain open-mindedness because of the world they moved in, but there was no questioning of apartheid. The messages I received as a child were subliminal but went deep. You had to call white adults Mr and Mrs or Uncle and Auntie, but you called black adults by their first names. When we grew up my brother became politically aware ahead of me, and at first I would defend my parents when he challenged them."

In a contribution to the 1997 TES Write Away children's creative writing project, she described her enlightenment at the University of the Witwatersrand, sitting on the lawn outside the canteen with the few black students still allowed to attend after the ironically-named Extension of Universities Act, which restricted most black undergraduates to separate institutions. She recalls hearing a lecture by Helen Joseph the day before the anti-apartheid activist was banned (forbidden to associate with more than two people) for a second time. "I began to realise how racism damages the people it is set up to protect," she says on the day we meet (South Africa's Freedom Day, she points out). "It was not a time for sitting on the fence."

After graduation she worked for Kupugani, a non profit-making food distribution organisation. "I went to Soweto with health workers and saw for myself how things were. That was another formative experience." Inevitably, in 1964, aged 21, she spent time in detention - eight weeks in Pretoria prison. "I was a very small fish - I had been leafletting and so on. I was arrested with a lot of other white women. Although we were put in solitary confinement we found ways to communicate and went on hunger strike, asking to be charged or released. After 10 days I realised I was becoming mentally weak, but then the hunger strike finished."

She was released, but most of her fellow detainees and others, including her brother, a journalist, were imprisoned after a long, high-profile trial. "They had taken Nelson Mandela and other key people. It seemed that the whole movement had been crushed." She left South Africa to study in England and got a place at the University of York and a United Nations bursary. Sir Robert Birley, the former headmaster of Eton, had been a visiting fellow at Wits University - "he was making it his business to find out what was going on in the townships and when I came out of detention he asked me what I was going to do" - and, crucially, suggested she contact Harry Ree, York's trailblazing professor of education. "Until then I had thought I would rather throw myself off a bridge than become a teacher. My school had given me narrow, bigoted values and my education had all taken place outside the classroom walls."

Harry Ree pointed her towards two memoirs that changed her life: Edward Blishen's The Roaring Boys and The African Child by the French Guinean writer Camara Laye. "I thought if that's what teaching's about, if education is about how we grow up culturally and find out who we are, I can do that."

After taking a PGCE at York, she intended to teach in a progressive school in Nigeria, having accepted that she would not return to South Africa ("the community I had chosen to be part of did not exist any more: everyone was in prison or had left the country"), but wanting to inch closer to home (she did not return until 1991, the year after Mandela's release). "My body was here but my head was in South Africa. Being white and having British grandparents, I had none of the problems others experience over whether I could stay in the country, it was just a matter of filling in the forms. But I did feel a sense of alienation and loss that few people understood. And at that stage it seemed that Nigeria was the place to go, that Nigeria would liberate South Africa, although it later went down a different path."

In fact, she met her husband Nandhu, a fellow South African exile, while she was saving her fare to Nigeria - "I made a decision I've never regretted" - and her first job was in a primary school in the London borough of Newham.

"The headteacher was reactionary and racist, and beat the children. There were notices saying 'no parents beyond this point'. I would never have passed my probationary year if it had not been for a kind inspector who found me another school with a very different culture."

She then spent two years at a comprehensive in Brent as a remedial teacher. "That was an education and a half. The majority of my pupils were from the Caribbean; some of them certainly should not have been in the remedial stream and I resented it greatly. That so-called comprehensive was running a Bantu education department (the apartheid system under which black pupils were taught a restricted curriculum). I had mostly 13-year-old boys and I was determined that they would all be reading more when they left me than they had before. I read to them every afternoon for half an hour and made sure that time was sacrosanct: The Silver Sword, Stig of the Dump, whole novels, books they wouldn't have tackled themselves."

Before her move to Dorset, where she still lives, in 1988, she became a literacy specialist in the educational psychology services of the ILEA, Hertfordshire and the London borough of Barnet. Work with an anti-apartheid group in Hert-fordshire led her to compile an analysis of children's information books on South Africa (Censoring Reality), which was published at the same time as Journey to Jo'burg. Both books were instantly banned in her home country. "But at least I had the freedom to write here, which writers in South Africa have not had. It's not just the banning - it's the risk that you will start censoring yourself to be published. People are still tentative about discussing these issues: Journey to Jo'burg is still not widely read in South Africa."

A PhD on the shaping of children's responses to what they read led to another academic book, Through Whose Eyes? (1992). She spent a year watching secondary English lessons, observing mainly white pupils' responses to a range of literature and working out ways to challenge their first impressions and explore issues of racism. "It's powerful stuff, asking young people to unpack their perceptions over a whole year. I did it the year before the national curriculum came in, it probably couldn't happen now. The context in which they read and the culture in the classroom in which literature is being promoted is so important."

In her acceptance speech last week, she condemned the "sidelining" of discussions about literature in schools - "this needs time for creative engagement and critical reflection" - and with them opportunities for education for social justice.

Her own dialogue with her young readers continue. Zora Laattoe (see box below), a family friend, is among those to whom she sends her manuscripts for comment. But she remains concerned that while her Palestinian readers have asked her: "Are all your books about humanity?", a more likely question from a UK reader is: "Are all your books about black people?" She says: "Young people today are getting literacy, but what else? My fear is that citizenship studies will end up being a series of tick-boxes. But my experience is that young people are interested in hearing someone talk honestly and straight-forwardly about what it is to be brought up in an openly racist society, in the context of how the world is shaped for us as children and how we're not aware that this shaping process is going on.

"My message is that you need to ask 'how do we get to see the whole picture?'. Otherwise someone else is making choices for you. I know about that: I grew up with a government that had chosen who my friends were going to be."

'The Other Side of Truth', 'Out of Bounds' and 'No Turning Back' are published by Puffin. 'Journey to Jo'burg' is published by Collins Modern Classics. 'Chain of Fire' is out of print. 'Through Whose Eyes? Exploring Racism: reader, text and context' is published by Trentham Books.l Is the literacy hour stunting children's imagination? Have your say on the TES website: www.tes.co.uk

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