Monday, April 11, 2022

Review: Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

Apartheid. It's a word we here in the US have heard (if we're old enough or perhaps through history in school) but we don't actually know much about the reality of it. We know that it means systemic racism, segregation, inequality, and racial violence. It means white-minority rule enforced by brutality and limited suffrage. It means the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. It means the murder of Stephen Biko. But of the major and minor clashes and the fight for equality and representation over the almost 50 years that it was enshrined in South African politics and law, most of us know very little. Until I read Bianca Marais' Hum If You Don't Know the Words, I didn't remember anything about the 1976 Soweto Uprising, a peaceful, 20,000 strong student-led demonstration that the government suppressed by firing on school children, killing and injuring many (official accounts and the presumed actual count vary wildly). This important and horrific event forms the backbone of Marais' well written debut novel.

Nine, almost ten, year old Robin lives with her parents in a mining town outside of Johannesburg. Her life is one of privilege and whiteness and the biggest divide in her world is that between the Dutch Afrikaner children and herself. She rides her bike, schemes about how she can join the boys-only gang in the neighborhood, and plays hopscotch. In short, she's living a normal, untroubled childhood. Until the night that her parents go to an event and don't come home, leaving Robin an orphan in the care of her glamorous, single, flight attendant Aunt Edith.

Beauty Mbali is a single mother who has struggled to raise her children after her husband's death. She is a teacher in the Transkei, where she grew up a member of the Xhosa people. Beauty is strong and smart but she is not spared from the unrest of the nation even in her rural home. She receives a letter from her brother, who has taken in Beauty's 17 year old daughter Nomsa so that she can get a better education than is offered her in the rural Transkei. The letter alarms Beauty, who leaves her sons behind and illegally undertakes the arduous journey to Johannesburg to save her daughter, only to arrive in the middle of the Soweto Uprising. In the aftermath of the uprising, Nomsa, who was one of the student leaders and organizers, is missing and Beauty will do anything to find her. This is how she comes to be Robin's caretaker whenever Aunt Edith is flying elsewhere in the world. Caring for Robin gives her the papers to stay in the city and search for her daughter.

The novel alternates between Robin and Beauty narrating their own chapters. With the first person narration, the reader can see and understand the deep sorrow and fear that both Robin and Beauty feel for their respective situations. Robin's narration is often immature, just as she herself is but it also shows how she is developing opinions and beliefs, ones that are formed by the love and care of the people who surround her, all of whom are "others" of some sort, Aunt Edith's gay friends, the Jewish family in the building whose young son is her only friend, and, of course, Beauty. Her lack of understanding of the outside forces of Apartheid, her refusal to embrace the racism of the time, and her growing humanity are hopeful, shining pieces of her character. And her delightful malapropisms give the novel some much needed levity. Beauty's narration is gorgeously wrought, a mother desperate for her daughter no matter the consequences. Her own growing understanding of what drove Nomsa and her pride in that fight, even if she wished that her daughter had just put her head down and avoided such attention, was beautifully rendered. Despite the hardship and tragedy and uncertainty she has faced, Beauty remains a woman full of love, for her children, for her people, and even for orphaned little Robin.

This is a story of injustice, intolerance, and prejudice. But it's also a story of grief, love, and resilience. The violence shown towards homosexuals and Jews provides additional evidence of the bigotry and racism of the time but it might also serve to dilute the bigger issue of the world of Apartheid and the story didn't really need additional evidence. Robin's inquisitive nature makes it a guarantee that she would initially want to help Beauty find Nomsa but the caper-like events at the end were completely unrealistic and felt a little like Harriet the Spy with far bigger stakes. Over all though, this was a wonderful read, one that sucked me in and kept me turning the pages and if it was a little hard to suspend disbelief at the end, what came before made it forgivable.

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