Sunday, June 4, 2017

Q&A with Beverley Naidoo

Beverley Naidoo, photo by Linda Brownlee
Beverley Naidoo's many books include the classic No Turning Back, about a boy living on the streets of South Africa, which was recently rereleased. Among her other works are Who Is King?, Journey to Jo'burg and S is for South Africa. She grew up in South Africa and is based in the U.K.

Q: How did it happen that No Turning Back was recently rereleased?

A: In 2001, the year in which I received the Carnegie Medal for The Other Side of Truth, Penguin UK included No Turning Back among their 21 Classics for the 21st Century. It was first published in 1997 so maybe that was a bit of a gamble!

However, the novel has now been in print for 20 years and continues to find new readers. I love the new cover in this new series called “The Originals,” subtitled “Iconic. Outspoken. First.” I can’t quite believe that I’m in the company of writers like John Steinbeck, Robert Cormier and others whose work I admire so much. 
Q: In what ways are the book's themes still valid today?

A: I wrote No Turning Back when South Africa was on the brink of huge change. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from jail by the government that had intended he should die in prison. By the end of the ‘80s, widespread resistance, global pressure and mounting disinvestment was finally taking effect. Apartheid had wrenched the country apart.

How does a society come together after such massive polarization? In the years during which I researched and wrote the novel, there was frightening violence.

Many suspected (later confirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) that much of this was fomented by disgruntled security personnel and right-wing groups intent on derailing the fragile path to democratic elections.

Without the imagination and wisdom of leadership, black and white and in different spheres such as the unions, churches, NGOs etc., it’s uncertain what would have happened. 

This was the turbulent background to my story of a boy from a poor black community who runs away to join even more marginalized children.

How will he survive on the streets of Jo’burg? What kind of relationship might he have with a white girl whose father gives him odd jobs and who wants to be friendly? 

Such themes of young people caught up in a polarized society, rife with poverty, racial discrimination and violence, seem to me as current today as 20 years ago... and not just in South Africa. The question then, as it is now, is how to go forward with some kind of hope.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Sipho?

A: I encountered street children on my first visit back to South Africa in 1991, returning after 26 years in exile. I realized that by telling the story of such a child, I could also tell a bigger story. But first I needed to learn a lot more about the experience of young people on the streets, as well as attitudes towards them.

In 1993, I returned again to South Africa with theatre director Olusola Oyeleye. We spent six weeks running drama and writing workshops across the country with street children, as well as in schools with young people of all backgrounds. We spoke with people who worked with street children. I studied photographs of them and drawings by them.

Martha Mokgoko, director of the Barefoot Teacher Training Project in Alexandra, ran a wonderful workshop with her students for us. (Images from her workshop remain with me until today.) Through all this, Sipho emerged for me.

A profound poem – “A Gift from God: Being a Street Child” - stands as a foreword to the novel. It was written by a very talented young assistant care-worker at the Street-Wise shelter for homeless children in Johannesburg. Webster Nhlanhla Nxele had once been a street child himself.

The poem begins: “What is this gift doing on the street?”  “Sipho” means “gift.”   

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: To be honest I can’t recall. My draft manuscripts are now archived at Seven Stories so I can no longer check in a box under the bed to see how early or late in the drafts I decided on this title.

However, it signifies to me: Don’t give up. Keep going forward. Keep moving on. It’s the spirit that Langston Hughes expresses in “Mother to Son”...
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now-
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just completed the text for my retelling of an ancient tale: Cinderella on the Nile... one of the earliest of the world’s many Cinderella tales. I’ve done some research and tell it with a slightly different slant from previous versions that I’ve come across.

It’s due to come out next year with Tiny Owl and I can’t wait to see what I expect to be dazzling illustrations by Marjan Vafaian. (If you’ve seen her work, you will know what I mean!)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have to admit that Cinderella on the Nile has been a fascinating diversion from the “under wraps” project I mentioned last time we spoke. I have a long road ahead but I remind myself...
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now-

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Beverley Naidoo, please click here

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